On May 3, 2020, in the fourth installment of CFHU’s HUJI@HOME webinar series, Prof. Janice Stein gave a highly cogent analysis of what humanity has experienced since the onset of the current pandemic and what its lasting impact will be.
Fielding questions from CFHU National Board member Ronnie Appleby, Prof. Stein said in this time of deep uncertainty, some people insist the fallout from COVID-19 is so all-encompassing it’s changing everything in our normal life, while others say that after a vaccine is found, nothing will really change. Both, she said, are wrong and the important question is what’s likely to revert back to pre-corona reality and what’s likely to change forever.
According to Prof. Stein, an international relations expert and founder of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, people were shocked when the pandemic revealed inadequacies in government preparedness for such a public health crisis. The lack of vital, even low-tech items such as masks and other personal protective equipment for frontline workers also drew attention to the issue of supply chains and the dependence of much of the world on China for what is manufactured. It reflected how Canada and other western countries had long pursued making the best possible product at the lowest possible price regardless of where, operating on a just-in-time inventory system, not stocking inventory, all of which left them vulnerable, especially when emergencies strike.
Just imagine, Prof. Stein pointed out, if COVID-19 had been a bacterial pandemic instead of a viral one, given that a component of every antibiotic is manufactured in China. Are people comfortable with that, she asked, before saying that will lead to changes in supply chains, bringing back certain manufacturing to domestic facilities and re-thinking our food and medical supplies by having enough strategic reserves to better protect citizens in the next emergency.
For a country’s security, governments will be held to account and will need to determine the areas of strategic importance for which to provide essentials for future calamities, whether they be climate-induced, medical or from other causes. It will come at a price, as Canadians will pay much more than before. But those who insist globalization will end are wrong. For example, the manufacturing of various goods, such as toys or shoes, won’t be returning to Canada.
In answer to the question about the major risks Canada is facing as it moves into recovery, Prof. Stein said the most obvious are economic. Whether one calls the current situation a recession or depression, many countries now have the largest number of unemployed since the Great Depression in the 1930s. COVID-19 has dealt a shock to the system, with consumer demand having shrunk drastically. Despite massive government financial support to businesses and individuals, the recovery will be prolonged, 12 – 18 months of a stop-and-go economy with consumers not spending the way they did before the pandemic. The prospect of a protracted stagnation is a major concern.
Prof. Stein, who’s also the Belzberg professor of conflict and negotiation, conflict management and negotiation in U of T’s Dept. of Political Science, identified other lasting changes, which were already underway in recent years but which the pandemic greatly accelerated. These include the digitization of daily life, increased automation through the use of robots and AI, and the practice of telemedicine and remote learning, even at the university level.
The virus, having exaggerated the income divide and made disparities more dramatic, also raised awareness and generated support for low-paid workers in long-term care homes, grocery stores, delivery services and other essential services. Coming out of the crisis, Prof. Stein predicted, there will be a greater willingness of Canadians to raise the wages of people who enabled the society to function during the pandemic at risk to their own health and safety.
It’s an open question, she said, whether the Ottawa’s emergency financial relief may eventually turn into a guaranteed annual income for a segment of the population, which under normal circumstances would’ve likely taken 10 years of debate. The crisis, she added, is changing the way people look at the social support system.
Along with problems and risks, the pandemic, like other major upheavals in the past, presents opportunities. Prof. Stein cited the famous quote from Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky about skating to where the puck is going and not where it was. She said leaders will have to think that way if they’re going to rise to the occasion. The pandemic has dealt such a blow to everything that it’s now almost forcing us to leapfrog over what would have transpired over a much longer timespan. The major change involves a mostly digitized society, including the economy, public education and healthcare systems and business. Those who understand that and get out in front of where the metaphorical puck is going will become the new leaders.