BALDREY: COVID crisis creating opportunities for extraordinary changes in public policy

A famous political aphorism first said back in the 2008 Great Recession seems rather apt right now and there is evidence some political leaders are following it.

“You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff to incoming U.S. President Barack Obama. Emanuel said a crisis allows an opportunity to do things not thought possible before.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is indeed a crisis, if not an outright catastrophe in both health and economic impacts. And indeed we have seen some changes in various areas that seemed unheard of just months ago.

For example, the federal government has essentially established a “guaranteed income” that may well become a Guaranteed Annual Income, an idea advocated for years by many but long thought unaffordable and unrealistic.

Yet the CERB – the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit – will be with us until at least the end of summer and quite likely well beyond that. Millions of people are out of work and the prospect of all those jobs returning in the near future seems bleak at best.

At some point, the CERB may be reduced from its current level but there is every reason to think it will become entrenched in our financial aid package until the pandemic is over and the economy is back on its feet. In other words: years.

On a much smaller scale, a few changes have occurred in B.C. that would have taken years to accomplish, yet the pandemic has hastened them through rather quickly.

One of them is the requirement for care workers at long-term care homes to work at one facility only and not multiple ones. The harsh impact of COVID-19 on residents in these facilities necessitated the change and it took only several months to accomplish, rather than years.

On another health care front, the B.C. government is allowing people who use drug substances access to safe prescription drugs so they do not access what has become an increasingly toxic street drug supply chain.

Again, such a move would have been fraught with controversy had it been done last year. But in the middle of a pandemic the policy seems to be seen as compassionate and shrewd by those who may have opposed this kind of policy before the pandemic.

The pandemic crisis is also offering opportunities to “re-think” so much of what we do in so many areas. Working from home may become much more prevalent, which has potentially dire consequences for such things as downtown office towers.

Could some of those towers be converted to, say, social housing? Again, a potential opportunity not even imagined a few months ago. The same idea may be the new reality for things like huge shopping malls, since our retail shopping habits will become transformed.

Our K-12 education system and our post-secondary education system will both face drastic and fundamental changes to their structures that have been in place for seemingly forever. The challenge here is to ensure these inevitable changes – based on smaller classes and physical distancing measures being in place – have a positive impact and not a negative one.

The list goes on: we will become, by necessity, a much larger welfare state. How do we manage that? Is the pandemic an “opportunity” to address the serious gap in income levels among people? How does fighting climate change fit into all this?

The pandemic is a crisis, unquestionably. However, it may also lead to some extraordinary changes thought impossible for so long.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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