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December 29, 2020

Of all the COVID-inspired clichés of 2020, “we can’t go back to how we were before” gets my vote for most trying.

Taken literally, it is empty. We can’t undo the deaths, restore students’ lost instruction, give young people the first jobs they didn’t get, erase the huge debts, enjoy the travel and human contact that didn’t happen. No, we can’t go back to 2019 — which is too bad.

Taken as an exhortation — “we shouldn’t go back to how we were before” — it is too often a prelude to magical thinking, a great leap to some environmental, economic or political nirvana previously out of reach. That is silly. A sick person who was never an athlete can dream of completing a triathlon. But their first task is to recover. In the same way, post-pandemic, Canadians need to repair the damage COVID has done to our health, our economy, and our governance. To go back, in fact, to where we were.

Granted, where we were in 2019 was well short of perfect. And I’m as prone as anyone to saying “we shouldn’t go back” if we are talking about health care and other services delivered — or not delivered — with faxes, paper, and sitting in waiting rooms. Or about long-term care that was nothing of the kind. Or about employment practices and office arrangements dating from the 1950s. In those areas, and many others, we don’t want to go back, and we won’t.

But if the person saying “we can’t go back” is implying that the pandemic has somehow cleared the way to a world where we emit no carbon dioxide and use no plastics, to a world where everyone has equal incomes and wealth, or where the constraints and frustrations of representative government have somehow disappeared, then we are in the realm of magical thinking. COVID has put new demands on our resources, hit many people who were already struggling disproportionately hard, and undermined accountability in many of our most important institutions. No harm in aiming higher some day — but our immediate tasks are more down-to-earth. Getting back to shaking hands, socializing, live entertainment, working together safely. Yes — going back to how we were.

The tension between eliminating single-use plastic products — a current obsession of the federal government — and the need for better hygiene, health care and facilities for the elderly is a stark example of a challenge the pandemic has intensified. Whatever we think of plastics as an environmental challenge, COVID has clearly heightened their usefulness. Coffee shops no longer welcome refillable mugs; bans on plastic bags have been lifted. Single-use plastics are critical in protecting patients and health-care providers, while addressing the disaster in long-term care will raise demand for them further. For now, can’t we admit that, before charting a course for a brave new world, we just want to get back to where we were?

Redistribution of income and wealth is another area where calls not to go back reflect magical thinking. The obstacles to universal income policies related to targeting, dependency and tax cost did not disappear when the pandemic made us all poorer — they got worse. The interrupted educations, lost jobs and depleted savings disproportionately affected many people who were already struggling to get the skills, opportunities and financial security other Canadians take for granted. Our top priority in mitigating public health risks and reopening the economy should be precisely to get these people back on track.

When it comes to governance and public affairs, 2020 has been a bleak year. Governments have responded to the pandemic with measures that often rested on weak legal, logical and scientific foundations. Key mechanisms for public accountability fell by the wayside. Many governments presented budgets late; the federal government simply never presented one at all. Parliament has not functioned normally, or at all, for most of the year. In these areas, too, we would be much better off if we just got back to 2019.

So for 2021, how about we get back to before a time when we kept hearing “we can’t go back”? Yes, let’s push ahead on virtual health care and digital delivery of services, on better long-term care, and on new ways of working. But let’s acknowledge that COVID has made us sick, and our top priority is getting well again.

Protecting the environment was easier when we were richer. Providing opportunities to marginalized people was easier when there were more jobs. Holding our politicians and officials accountable was easier when they did less ruling by decree.

I too want to make progress in 2021 and beyond. It would help, though, to drop the most vacuous policy slogan of 2020. Sometimes, getting back is exactly what we need to do.

Published in the Financial Post 

William Robson is CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute.