There are many aspects to the beginning of how we emerge from COVID-19. My focus today is on health (briefly) and the economy.
Our health professionals, support workers and media personnel have done a terrific job of creating the protocols and getting the message out on social distancing, hand-washing, self-isolating and quarantining. Our transmission rates have been kept at minimal levels thanks to the dedicated efforts of Premier King, Minister Aylward, Dr. Heather Morrison, their respective staffs and support as well as print, radio/TV and electronic media professionals. Credit is also due to so many Islanders who have paid attention to the messaging and adapted life-styles to keep our families, friends and neighbours safe. We can all appreciate the level of professionalism and competency that has been demonstrated over the past six weeks.
We thank the thousands of other workers who are out there providing essential services and continue to work with high degrees of risk to themselves. Our gratitude goes out to the retail workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and corner stores. Continuing thanks go to all those involved in transportation and who keep people moving, whether they are mechanics, truck drivers, taxi or public transit drivers. Additionally, we should not forget our public servants and utility workers who keep responding to requests on water, internet service delivery or information on who and what office to access for information and support; or the many other workers from financial services, to essential industries, to not-for-profits, to construction workers to farmers and farm workers and many more. We may be living in times of isolation but so many services continue to get delivered to by these thousands of dedicated Islanders.
As we begin the process of emerging and living with COVID-19 our health objectives are five-fold: Find, Test, Isolate, Treat and Track. Meeting these objectives is essential to move out of the quarantine and self-isolation mode and begin to create a new normal. The best epidemiological and health minds on the planet cannot provide specifics on delivery dates for vaccines or when we will hit peak transmission, but they are telling us that reducing death and other negative effects of COVID-19 will have a higher chance of success if we do these 5 things as listed above.
We can be somewhat comforted by the example that our people and system has given us over the past few weeks, and can anticipate similar levels of professionalism and understanding. Islanders can feel assured that, although we don’t know the dates or details yet, we will be able to work our way to controlling the virus.
The economic question is a bigger piece and less amenable to daily measurement. There are huge questions and many concerns around the future of essential economic sectors. What will tourism look like and how will industry participants survive what is looking like a disastrous season? How will the fishery or agriculture be able to process the landings or harvest without the influx of temporary workers? How will both of these affect seasonal and summer employment and the essential requirement of getting enough weeks to be able to survive through the fall and winter of 2020-21? How will small business be able to pay operations, expenses and loans if sales are so much lower than anticipated?
Here are a few approaches that all three levels of government can be considering.
The primary principle is that economic renewal can only be done efficiently from the ground-up. Putting money directly into people’s pockets will provide the economic base for small business to survive. Money that depends on trickling down to people is inefficient and wasteful. This is a similar principal to raising minimum wage – when we increase incomes for people with the lowest wages and those who are most economically vulnerable, they will spend almost all of that money in the local economy. This in turn allows higher sales for local businesses.
On the direct income side, the best and most immediate solution is a Universal Basic Income. Every Islander deserves the security of having sufficient income to cover basic expenses. Let us start with that. Not for profit groups across the country have sent dozens of letters of support proposing PEI as the place to implement a Basic Income program. Now is the perfect time to heed their call and get it done.
The second element on the direct income side is EI. It has often been said that PEI does not have seasonal workers; we have a seasonal economy. Creating one EI zone for PEI is more essential now than ever. The number of hours needed to qualify can be reduced dramatically to accurately reflect the reality of the 2020/2021 seasonal economy. The current 420 hours to re-qualify may be sufficient but will have to be examined in light of the economic reality. Benefit rates can be increased to at least 60% and ideally to 65% and include a provision to extend the weeks of eligibility that will allow workers to get to the 2021 season.
On housing the governments (provincial, federal and municipal) should just make the necessary investment in public funded, publicly managed, affordable, quality housing. There may be some space for investment in private sector initiatives but the most cost effective way to build the housing necessary with the most direct economic benefit is to dramatically increase public housing stock as quickly as possible. The principle here is keeping public assets in the public sector. Many of these units will be income tested and the scope of the construction has to be across the spectrum to allow for single people (seniors and young workers) to couples and families.
Private sector developers can continue to concentrate on single detached and duplexes/triplexes etc. There will continue to be a market for this area of housing and it will be a net economic contributor over the medium and long-term.
As regards education, the provincial government should forgive all outstanding student loans and make post-secondary education on PEI tuition free at least for the next two years. Keeping Island students on PEI will have an immediate positive impact on the Island economy. Dropping student loan payments will cost the government some but will allow students who are currently making payments to spend their money on other essentials. Two years may not be much but UPEI, Holland College and College de l’Île can look at expanding programs or offering new ones as part of this strategy.
A final suggestion for the economy is to include environmental initiatives. Ironically one of the positive effects of COVID-19 is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Clearly this gives us an indication of the effect when we change our production and consumption patterns.
Our economy must look for ways to make use of heightened awareness of the link between the economy and how we pollute. This awareness can bring creativity and opportunity. The provincial and federal governments can use this particular moment to increase investment in home and industry retrofits and new technologies. This can be done through expanding existing subsidies to individuals and businesses but also should look at new modes of production that are the right fits for PEI.
We will get through COVID-19 and who knows if there is another pandemic or emergency waiting for us down the road. The experience that we have gained in addressing virus transmission and health concerns will now be incorporated into our policy. The same should be true of the economic plans. The years of government socializing the cost and privatizing the profit have shown themselves to be inefficient and wasteful. Just as we have tried new approaches in health so should we try them for the economy.