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April 13, 2020

Last Friday’s grim labour-force numbers from Statistics Canada were just the latest evidence that COVID-19 is a threat not only to Canadians’ lives, but to our livelihoods. And those numbers predated the more complete shutdown that has closed so many businesses over the past three weeks.

By now, the tally of lost jobs will be in the millions. More people will be working reduced hours, earning less and fearing for the future. Even with government supports, bankruptcies are mounting, and temporary closures and layoffs are becoming permanent. The longer this lasts, the deeper and harder to repair the damage becomes.

As the seriousness of the novel coronavirus became clear, public health naturally took priority. Epidemiologists emphasized the need to “flatten the curve” lest a surge of people needing acute care overwhelmed our hospitals and our health-care workers.

We are not yet where we need to be, but the slowing growth rates are encouraging. In many countries that were on the front line of the crisis, such as Taiwan and South Korea in Asia, and Austria and Denmark in Europe, people are talking about getting back to work. It is time we in Canada began the same conversation.

That conversation is hard. We still know too little about the coronavirus. Reliable tests, treatments and vaccines are weeks, months and maybe years away. Balancing health and other priorities when resuming activity will be different in different sectors: transportation, manufacturing, construction and retailing all have unique features, and sectors such as hospitality and live entertainment face particular challenges.

On top of the uncertainty and complexity is the awkwardness of the trade-offs. Public officials who talk about the balance between threats to life and livelihoods will often be on the firing line.

In this tough situation, task forces with expertise on key sectors of the economy offer a way forward. For employers, protecting employees is already a top priority. People who know how businesses such as trucking, homebuilding, hotels and telecommunications run can provide technical advice that helps strike better balances between health and other imperatives.

Equipped with up-to-date information from public health officials and epidemiologists, such task forces will help governments prioritize, and avoid missteps that could set our health and our economy back.

Communiques from such task forces can help in another way. Public officials hesitate to talk about the economy when so many people, quite reasonably, see health as a higher priority. They do not want to talk about timelines for a restart when so much is uncertain.

Yet we need to talk about these things. Too many Canadians – workers and employers alike – are feeling as though the current shutdown will last so long that it might as well be forever. If they give up, we are worse off in every way.

The federal government needs such a task force. So do the provinces. Cities could use them too. Circumstances are different at each level of government, as they are different in each part of the country.

What is common to all is the need for experts who can help balance health and economic imperatives, communicate how that balance is being struck, and help governments and the public alike think constructively about life as we rebuild the economy.

The time to establish these task forces is now. The economic restart will take time, and time is not on our side. Last Friday’s jobs report did not just contain grim overall numbers. It highlighted the extent to which the shutdown is disproportionately affecting people in precarious work, women, people who were already earning less – and most ominous of all – young people.

A whole cohort of young Canadians – 400,000 of them every year – are going to enter a labour market where jobs are fewer, and opportunities rarer, than for any boomer, Gen-Xer or millennial. Milder past recessions have shown that a bad start can leave a scar for a lifetime. That is an imperative on par with the health threat from COVID-19.

It is too early to restart the economy. But it is not too early to prepare. Task forces that bring together expertise, and can spark the constructive conversations we need to have, will help. Canadians need them, federally, provincially and municipally. They will help us start the restart.

Published in the Globe and Mail

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