Canada needs to become more secure by becoming more self-sufficient. In a new series — Strong & Free: Shockproofing Canada — the Post examines how a country made wealthy by globalization and trade can also protect itself against pandemics and other unknown future shocks to ensure some of our immense resources and economic power are reserved for our own security.
Canada is in for a “long fight” to reopen its economy, one requiring not just a massive increase in testing for COVID-19 but also a significant overhaul in the way infectious disease data is collected and shared among provinces, epidemiologists say.
Though recent data suggests Canada has had success in flattening the curve of coronavirus cases, infectious disease experts are warning against seeing the numbers as a sign that the fight against the virus is over — or that the country has the necessary tools in place to reopen businesses without prompting a renewed flare up of the virus.
“Bending the curve in principle simply slows the intensity of people getting sick such that you don’t overwhelm the hospitals, that’s all it does,” said Dr. Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard University, specializing in infectious diseases.
“Everybody locked up who has not tested positive is still susceptible. The virus looks for susceptibles and the only way the epidemic stops is when there aren’t enough of them to sustain it. So the question is, how do you let people out once you’ve protected the hospitals and how do you know when you’ve gone too far?”
Getting it wrong could have devastating consequences for an already staggering economy. Most forecasts call for growth to hit a low point in April or May at which point it will stabilize or slowly recover. A second wave of COVID-19 cases could create a confidence shock to consumers that would derail those predictions, said Frances Donald, chief economist at Manulife Investment Management.
“What worries me is that crawling out of this economic hole is already going to be extremely challenging,” Donald said. “We are worried about the rise in defaults and delinquencies among businesses and households. And every time we shutter the economy we risk another wave of defaults.”
Getting an economic restart right, most experts agree, will overwhelmingly rely on the hard work of testing, contact tracing and sharing data, critical tasks that run the risk of being hindered by supply chain bottlenecks, a lack of consistency in testing protocols among provinces, poor data sharing and difficulties presented by the disease itself.
“You need very quick, very large scale testing in place before you do anything,” said Amir Attaran, a professor of law and epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. “If you don’t have that in place, forget about it.”
Part of the challenge comes down to the highly contagious nature of the virus itself. In the early days of the pandemic, testing was limited in various ways across the provinces to vulnerable individuals, those who had travelled to COVID-19 hotspots and, crucially, to those with symptoms.
However, early evidence from countries that have engaged in widespread testing shows that between 25 and 50 per cent of those infected with COVID 19 do not display any of its telltale signs — including a cough, a fever, shortness of breath and runny nose. And as international examples suggest, “if you don’t identify people who are asymptomatic transmitters it will flare up again,” said Bloom.
As evidence of just how potent asymptomatic spread can be, Bloom points to a February meeting of 175 executives of the American biotechnology company Biogen Inc. in Boston. Two weeks after the gathering, which included at least one asymptomatic individual, 75 per cent of the 108 Massachusetts residents infected with COVID-19 were associated with Biogen.
“Any percentage of the population that is asymptomatic but infected and allowed back to work has a good shot within a two week period of infecting those they come into contact with,” Bloom said. “The only way to know if they will is by testing and that means testing a hell of a lot of people.”
How many? Ontario, with a population of 14.5 million has tested 94,000 people with plans to double the number of tests processed each day from a current 4000 to 14,000 by April 29, 2020 — at which point it says overall lab capacity will have been further expanded. Iceland, by contrast, has already tested 100,000 of its 364,000 residents. Norway is running 30 tests per 1,000 of its population — roughly double that of Ontario.
“No one knows how many you need, certainly millions,” Bloom said. “You need as many as it takes to get the rate of infection down and keep it down. I’ll tell you the United States will never have enough so just start making them.”
Efforts to ramp up testing have almost immediately run into what has now become a hallmark of the pandemic: shortages of critical medical equipment and devices due to supply chain issues.
COVID-19 testing involves the use of six-inch nasopharyngeal medical swabs, the vast majority of which are produced by just two companies: Copan, an Italian firm, and Maine-based Puritan Medical Products, said Fazila Seker, president and chief executive of Toronto based Molli Surgical Inc.
“There is a massive shortage because there is unprecedented need,” said Seker, whose company has partnered with automotive manufacturers NMC Dynaplas Ltd. to produce the swabs in Canada. “Every week there is a different bottleneck and that’s because the scale of need is so massive.”
Using open source design information from researchers at Harvard University and Beth Israel Hospital, Molli Surgical expects to produce one million swabs by July 1, with production ramping up to 500,000 per week after that.
Beyond producing equipment however, a responsible approach to reopening the economy will depend on straightening out testing discrepancies among provinces and bolstering data collection to inform policy, Attaran says.
Though the federal government collaborates with the provinces on testing, critical decisions about who is tested, how the data is gathered and what is shared — including critical “microdata” about patients ages and how many end up in ICUs — sits at the provincial level.
Every week there is a different bottleneck and that’s because the scale of need is so massiveFazila Seker
For instance, while Alberta has made testing available to anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, Ontario has limited it to people sick enough to be in hospital, health-care workers, long-term care residents and Indigenous people. Manitoba and Quebec have similarly established their own procedures for administering tests.
Without a single baseline for who is tested, how many tests are administered per 100,000 population and how the data is reported to the federal government, no accurate national picture of the virus’s spread is possible, said Attaran.
“We’re comparing apples and oranges and that limits the uses to which you can put data,” he said. “It limits the scientific questions you can reasonably answer and the decisions you can make. That’s really too bad given what we’re dealing with.”
Unemployment rate hits new record even as economy adds jobs – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, June 5, 2020 5:18AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, June 5, 2020 3:25PM EDT
OTTAWA – Canada’s employment minister says the federal government is rethinking a key COVID-19 benefit so workers have more incentive to get back on the job, in an effort to maintain a surprising boost in job numbers from May.
Statistics Canada reported that the country got back 289,600 jobs in May – which mirrored a similar bump in the U.S. – after three million jobs were lost over March and April and about 2.5 million more people had their hours slashed.
Provincially, Quebec led the way, gaining 231,000 jobs as it became one of the first provinces to ease restrictions, doing so just before Statistics Canada collected data the week of May 10. Ontario was the only province with losses, albeit at a slower pace than in March and April.
Combined with more people reporting getting regular hours, the agency said Canada had recovered only 10.6 per cent of employment losses and absences related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Friday’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate in May rose to 13.7 per cent, the highest level in more than four decades of comparable data. But that’s because more people started looking for work – meaning the rate shouldn’t be taken as a sign of underlying weakness, said CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes.
The unemployment rate is a measure of the people looking for work who can’t find it, meaning it can actually decline if job-seekers give up, or increase as formerly discouraged seekers see new signs of hope.
Still, the monthly labour force survey showed that men gained back more jobs than women, resulting in a wider gender gap in employment losses as a result of COVID-19, and that the pandemic continued to disproportionately affect lower-wage workers.
To keep gains going, business and labour groups called for a revamp of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the employment insurance system.
The first cohort of recipients of the $500-a-week payment will max out their 16 weeks of benefits in early July. Some may qualify for employment insurance, while others may not have any work available, meaning significant drops in income that could hamper the path to recovery, said TD senior economist Brian DePratto.
The Canadian Labour Congress and Canadian Chamber of Commerce separately called for reforms to the decades-old EI system, which the Liberals determined early on in the crisis couldn’t handle the influx of jobless claims.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough suggested all ideas are on the table when it comes to EI, and the future of the CERB.
“As we look into the months coming … we’ve got a different goal in mind: People need to get back to work safely,” she said at a midday press conference.
“So our thinking moving forward is how do we balance a need to continue to support workers, while not disincentivizing work?”
The most recent federal figures show 8.37 million people applied for the CERB, with $43.18 billion in payments as of June 2. Qualtrough said 1.2 million recipients no longer require it, although it wasn’t immediately clear why.
The Canada Revenue Agency also said this week that almost 190,000 payments of wrongfully received benefits had been made as of June 3.
Economists had been watching the CERB numbers as a proxy for Friday’s jobs report, which set up expectations for another round of job losses.
CERB figures will continued to be watched to track possible job losses and compare it to areas where there are signs of progress, said Brendon Bernard, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.
“The strength of this rebound is going to depend to a significant degree on what happens with layoffs,” he said in an interview. “We could see some areas of the economy bounce-back as shuttered sectors reopen, but if layoffs continue, then it’s going to be tough for net job gains to be particularly strong.”
The total number of unemployed Canadians doubled from February to April, a surge driven by temporary layoffs that the vast majority of workers expected to last less than six months.
At the same time, there was a spike in the number of people who wanted to work but weren’t actively looking for jobs, likely because the economic shutdown has limited job opportunities. People not actively seeking work aren’t counted in unemployment figures.
The unemployment rate for May would have been 19.6 per cent had the report counted among the unemployed those who stopped looking for work – largely unchanged since April.
Statistics Canada said lower-wage workers recovered just over one-10th of the losses they experienced in March and April. But they continued to be a higher share of people working less than half of their usual hours.
Lower-wage workers were among the first- and hardest-hit during the shutdown, largely because they worked in industries like retail, restaurants and hotels that closed early in the pandemic.
Besides seeing less improvement generally compared with men, women with children under age six saw slower job gains than those with older children.
Rebounds were also weak for students and recent immigrants.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.
Saskatchewan says economy is rebounding despite 12.5% unemployment rate – Globalnews.ca
The Saskatchewan government is feeling confident its economy is on the rebound.
By the end of April, the unemployment rate in the province was 11.3 per cent. Saskatchewan’s unemployment rate is, however, the second-lowest among provinces and below the national average of 13.7 per cent.
“The Saskatchewan workforce is still being seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but there are a number of signs that show Saskatchewan’s economy is both recovering faster, and was less impacted, than other provinces,” said Jeremy Harrison, immigration and career training minister, in a statement.
“We have the second-lowest unemployment rate in Canada and the number of people working rose in May, which is a strong, positive sign in the COVID-19 era. The Saskatchewan economy is positioned to strongly improve as we move forward with the Re-Open Saskatchewan plan.”
In Saskatchewan, there were 600 more jobs in May than April, while 87 per cent of those working in February were working in May.
Since February, the number of hours worked in the province has dropped by 9.1 per cent. It’s the second-lowest decline in provinces. Nationally, the average decline in the number of hours worked over that same period is 19.3 per cent.
Coronavirus outbreak: All options on the table for benefits to help those impacted by COVID-19
“Looking forward, we are seeing positive economic news in Saskatchewan, including announcements about helium and lithium recently,” Harrison said.
“These new investments will bring jobs and investment to communities across the province and will help lift our economy out of the current challenges facing markets globally.”
The province said businesses in Saskatchewan are faring better than other jurisdictions, claiming to have closed fewer than other provinces did.
“This speaks to the strength of Saskatchewan’s economy and a strong reopening plan aiding in economic recovery,” the province said in a release issued on Friday.
Despite the optimism from the provincial government, the Saskatchewan NDP has laid out three actions it believes the province should take right now to strengthen the economy going forward.
First, to put Saskatchewan businesses and workers first through a Sask-first procurement plan that helps keep jobs in the province. Secondly, make the Saskatchewan Small Business Emergency program more accessible.
Saskatchewan tops up economic stimulus package by $2 billion
Finally, to end the six-month lockout between Regina’s Co-op Refinery and its workers, which would put 800 Saskatchewan people back to work.
“New Democrats have urged Premier Moe and this Sask. Party government to protect jobs and small businesses, but clearly not enough has been done,” Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said.
“We know that Saskatchewan’s economy was already shrinking before COVID – and now the Premier’s lack of action to put Saskatchewan workers and businesses first is making things worse.”
Saskatchewan continues its reopen plan with Phase 3 beginning on June 8.
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Uncertainty abounds as Nova Scotia economy reopens – TheChronicleHerald.ca
Premier Stephen McNeil is encouraging people to “think local, support local” as the province’s economy reopens Friday but the future of many small businesses struggling to meet government public health guidelines remain uncertain.
“Businesses will require our support on a go-forward basis,” said McNeil Thursday, before facing criticism from opposition leaders for what they deemed a poorly orchestrated and communicated reopening plan that has left businesses scrambling to reopen.
“There should be a massive information exercise by the Province of Nova Scotia that gives Nova Scotians confidence in the system that’s in play,” said Tory Leader Tim Houston.
Government announced its plan to reopen sectors of the economy, including restaurants and bars, salons and gyms last week. The premier has faced ongoing criticism for not offering clear direction on what specific public health requirements, including equipment, businesses need to meet in order to reopen.
“The lack of information over the last few weeks and couple of months has really put businesses at a disadvantage,” said Houston. “I’m hearing from lots that are having difficulty getting supplies that they think they need for disinfecting. There’s a whole host of businesses that still don’t know what they’re required to do and what their customers are required to do.”
The province is offering a $25-million grant program that offers up to $5,000 for small business, non-profits and other operations, including dental offices. The program is intended to help those groups with the costs of buying equipment and cleaning supplies needed to reopen.
Sectors, including barber shops and hair salons, are frustrated over the limit of 10 occupants permitted in their businesses. Restaurants will essentially be reduced to half capacity. Many businesses are unable to secure protective equipment and cleaning supplies in time to reopen.
Meanwhile, many small businesses are still pleading for rent relief. The federal Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program, offering to cover 75 per cent of rent for small businesses, has had limited uptake largely because it’s optional for landlords.
Business Minister Geoff MacLellan admitted that businesses would require added financial assistance at least through the initial months of the reopening. He said that’s especially true given that tourism numbers are predicted to drop dramatically this summer, a primary source of for many businesses reopening.
“I think that’s inevitable, to be honest,” said MacLellan.
His department is working directly with associations representing businesses working to get their reopening plans approved by public health and government.
“We’ll open up and see how things go the first few days,” said MacLellan. “I’m absolutely certain we’ll hear back from those associations.”
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