As the Bank of Canada’s new governor, Tiff Macklem, reminded us last week, the lockdown to stop the coronavirus epidemic has been costly. And the battle is not over yet.
Those who once thought shuttering the economy to corral COVID-19 was too expensive now merely have to look south, where a strategy of whistling past the graveyard has led to an economically devastating second round of the disease.
Even while some COVID-deniers continue a bizarre refusal to follow simple steps to defeat the pandemic, Canadian businesses may be able to profit from lessons learned abroad.
Using the innovation for which capitalism is famed and the power of good science, it may be possible to have the best of both worlds. Instead of waiting for a vaccine — which some scientists doubt will be as effective as hoped — businesses and policy-makers are seeking strategies to reopen the economy without launching an even more costly renewed outbreak.
From the slightly wacky to the eminently practical, here are some ways Canada might be able to have its cake and eat it too.
1. Drinking helmets
From Japanese whisky-producer Suntory comes one of the most interesting COVID-19 business proposals: a specialized drinking helmet that allows the up-close socializing typical in pubs without sharing the virus. The company has not yet revealed prototypes.
Along with Plexiglas barriers, vastly improved ventilation and increased table spacing, the drinking helmet would just be a slightly more eccentric innovation to keep patrons feel safe while showing authorities that bars and restaurants need not be sources of contagion.
As agricultural economist and farmer Philip Shaw told me recently, automation was already sweeping the industry — even in such difficult tasks as tomato picking — before COVID-19 precautions began adding to the costs of temporary foreign workers. Shaw, who worries farmers have not had enough government support during the crisis, says profits depend on imported labour.
But every time costs rise, new technology becomes more feasible. Now, after repeated outbreaks of the disease in meat-packing plants, companies including Tyson Foods are struggling to get machines to do processing jobs that have traditionally been thought to require the finesse of human manual dexterity.
3. Raise wages
Improbable as it may seem, while some traditional business voices are calling for the end of the Canada emergency response benefit — so that employers can persuade workers to come back to lower wage jobs — others insist now is the time to increase employee incomes.
Management research shows investing in people pays off in the long run. Usually businesses can’t afford to wait. But since businesses aren’t expecting immediate returns in this period, this may be a perfect time to hire only essential workers and pay them well.
For those who can afford it, business advocates say paying more will pay off while improving a company’s reputation with consumers. And as the Economist reports in this week’s edition, as natural capital is expended, human capital becomes the source of a country’s economic success.
4. Dial up, dial down
While his suggestions have often been ignored by his boss, on Friday Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the U.S. president’s coronavirus task force, had some sound advice on how businesses can “carefully and prudently” open the economy, as he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, without suffering a new outbreak.
One of his pieces of advice is to use a “dial up, dial down” strategy — instead of opening businesses everywhere all at once, do it in incremental steps, ready to take a step back if cases begin to increase and avoid the risk of a costly return to lockdown.
5. Some businesses reopen first
It is inevitable that some self-interested businesses including the entertainment and airline industries have been lobbying hard to get back to normal.
“Let’s go fly for God’s sake,” American Airlines boss Doug Parker told the Wall Street Journal just as the U.S. was hitting new COVID-19 case records.
But it is clear that different businesses have different risk levels.
In the absence of drinking helmets, for example, bars have been contagion hot spots. Businesses in regions, such as the Atlantic provinces, that have been relatively virus free get to go first while health authorities prepare to pounce on local outbreaks.
6. Listen to science
Last week Air Canada’s chief medical officer Jim Chung called on governments to adopt a “science-based approach” to reopening the travel industry.
While the appeal was clearly aimed at getting more paying bums in seats, the idea of businesses listening to science seems like one that could have prevented the U.S. second wave and could stop one from happening in Canada. The newness of the disease has meant that medical experts seem to have repeatedly got it wrong.
But as scientists learn more about the disease — and masks, and whether airports and travel, or something else, actually contribute more to the spread of the disease — business leaders may be learning that by accepting scientific advice and adopting innovative techniques, they can maximize profits and bring the economy back without unleashing a disastrous new U.S.-style spike in cases.
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis