I am sure that most people, like myself, will not be sad to see the end of 2020. It was a year that changed our lives profoundly and certainly not in a good way. The COVID-19 virus exposed the serious weaknesses in our political, economic, social and health care infrastructures in a way few could have foreseen. It skewered the complacency and confidence of our 21st century civilization and demonstrated how fragile our world really is when a randomly mutated microscopic microbe virtually brought our lives to a crashing halt. To date, millions have died, tens of millions will have acquired significant long-term health issues and countless others will have suffered economic damage or job loss. It was truly an “annus horribilis.”
As we enter 2021, newly developed vaccines have brought hope to many that sometime soon our lives can return back to normal. As much as I can sympathize with that sentiment, I frankly do not desire a return to the kind of “normal” we had gotten used to before the virus struck. That “normal” has been effectively proven to be inadequate at dealing with the kind of global catastrophe that the coronavirus spawned. As much as we have suffered over the past year, we should also look upon the dumpster fire that was 2020 as an opportunity to learn some lessons and make some long overdue changes in the way we lead our lives.
First and foremost, we need to seriously restructure the way we work. In our developed world, the majority of the workforce is composed of “white collar” employees, working mostly in centralized office buildings in large urban centres. This results in a large number of people commuting daily from their suburban homes to their downtown work locations. Most of these commuters do this by car rather than public transport, resulting not only in a lot of wasted time commuting, but also in a substantial amount of air pollution, at a time when we have reached a crisis point in terms of destructive climate change. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced a lot of companies to have their employees work remotely from home, and surprisingly, most discovered that not only was this feasible because of our well-developed virtual communications networks, but that this was a cost-effective working model with no discernable loss in productivity. Further if you permanently reduce the number of people commuting by even half, the positive impact on climate change would be dramatic. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
Secondly, the pandemic exposed the serious weakness of our social welfare and unemployment insurance systems. The restrictions that were implemented in an attempt to curtail the spread of the virus caused massive layoffs and unemployment as business were forced to shut down or significantly curtail their activities. The existing welfare and unemployment safety nets were stretched to the breaking point as governments were forced to implement drastic emergency financial support measures to rescue those most severely impacted by the economic damage caused by the virus. There have been many efforts in recent decades to create a guaranteed minimum basic income program to replace the patchwork of inefficient and deficient income support programs for those in need. Had there been such a program in place, our country would not have been forced to scramble at the last minute to provide emergency economic relief to those victimized by the pandemic.
A third lesson painfully learned was the gross inadequacy of the operation of long-term care homes for the elderly. Part of the issue resulted from the fact that many of these are private, for profit operations. While hundreds were dying in these homes because of lack of staff and PPE, many of these businesses were paying large dividends to their investors. This can only be described as morally despicable and repugnant. The care of our vulnerable elderly should never be held hostage to the corporate imperative to maximize profits. One should note that the not-for-profit seniors’ homes fared significantly better than their corporate counterparts in terms of controlling the spread of the virus and minimizing fatalities. The government run long-term care facilities also had a better record than the for-profit ones, though not quite as good as the non-governmental ones, since the provincial governments have for years been cutting back on the funding, staffing and regulatory oversight of these institutions. Our seniors deserve better.
Lastly, what this pandemic has demonstrated dramatically, is the need to have a robust pandemic fighting infrastructure on both a national and global level. Recent decades have shown that new viruses and pandemics can no longer be considered rare or a once in a lifetime event. We have seen SARS, Ebola, West Nile, HIV, H1N1 and COVID-19 among others, and the medical community is warning that we will see more of these in the future on a regular basis. We need to have the logistics, the supplies, equipment, defined procedures and trained staff permanently in place that can respond quickly and effectively to any future such outbreaks.
COVID-19 should be seen as a wake-up call. We will undoubtedly see similar and likely more deadly outbreaks in the future. It should be obvious to everyone that we need to be better prepared.