If truth is the first casualty of war, nuance is the first victim of a global pandemic. For almost a year, as governments have made a series of difficult decisions around what to allow and disallow, their options have been portrayed as a grim choice between saving lives and saving the economy.
Many people seem to think of the economy as some artificial and abstract construct that operates separately from human beings, like a machine that enslaves us while rewarding faceless corporations with huge profits. Perhaps in Ottawa, where so many people have public-sector jobs, it’s even easier to forget how many people’s livelihoods depend on strong, local private-sector activity.
The economy is so much more than a data point like the GDP or the cash in Jeff Bezos’s bank account. It’s the bowling alley in Orléans that employs full-time and part-time staff who rely on the income to pay for their kids’ food and clothing and future education. It’s the activity centre in Nepean that hasn’t hosted a birthday party in a year, meaning its mostly young employees haven’t had a chance to earn spending money, learn valuable workplace skills or engage in work that gives them purpose. It’s a generation of local entrepreneurs coping with extraordinary stress in supporting their team members, making critical decisions about the future of their companies, suffering losses and taking on additional debt, and constantly adapting to new market conditions.
None of this means we should ignore public health warnings and reopen every business at full capacity. But we should acknowledge that as much as possible, we need to manage two public health risks: coronavirus infections and the suffering caused by economic hardship. Economic growth is not a fun pastime for the super-rich; it’s precisely during difficult circumstances when many people need both the income, the community and the purpose that arise from their everyday jobs.
That’s why the decisions are much more difficult and complex than a simple, binary choice. Allow more businesses to open in Ottawa and you’ll increase infections. Keep them closed and you’ll see different, sometimes equally significant harms, including and especially mental illness. Tragically, in both cases, the people who are most likely to be affected are those who are already disadvantaged.
This content was originally published here.