Safety nets were chopped and now we’re screwed trying to respond to the ‘equal opportunity virus’

    Apr 1, 2020

    OTTAWA—The entire Western world was feelin’ itself until the novel coronavirus hit. Now, we’ve been humbled like Justin Trudeau on his blackface apology tour.

    Every time I type the name of this pandemic, all I can hear is Cardi B’s coronavirus rant on Instagram that has been chopped and screwed into a remix that’s blazing up the charts. (The internet remains undefeated.)

    It’s no surprise that a former dancer, turned reality show star and Instagram influencer, turned hit femcee, turned political and social commenter, is one of those few intersectional voices leading the communication of the consequences of this virus to those who mainstream media news broadcasts cannot reach. After all, COVID-19 should be known as the “equal opportunity virus,” one that doesn’t care about your age, your education, your postal code, or your status. In fact, it’s remarkable how many privileged, monied, and powerful people have contracted this virus: Tom Hanks, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Idris Elba, Prince Albert of Monaco, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Prince Charles, to name a few. The irony of millionaires and billionaires being more susceptible to this virus than previous outbreaks is, frankly, unprecedented. This may be due to the concentration of wealth and privilege—the one per cent, if you will—that has grown over the past 40 years.

    It is in this timeframe that we have coincidentally ravaged the welfare state to the point where it is just a shell of itself; it’s reminiscent of a Jenga tower that wobbles more destructively with each block removed from its structure. The eventuality is already pre-ordained. The Canadian social safety net, or the welfare state, we have now is no match for the damage the coronavirus will inflict on all of us. And we did it to ourselves by worshipping at the altar of the neoliberal ideology.

    Neoliberalism is generally associated with policies of economic liberalization including: privatization, deregulation, globalization, free trade, austerity, and reductions in government spending to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. Originally buoyed by the political fallout of two oil crises in the 1970s and the political economy of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, trickle-down economics—neoliberalism’s first wave—remains the biggest economic lie ever told. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated the ineffectiveness of this piece of economic dogma in its 2015 report on global income inequality,

    “Specifically, if the income share of the top 20 per cent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 per cent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth. The poor and the middle class matter the most for growth via a number of interrelated economic, social, and political channels,” the report said.


    But we don’t make policy for the poor, or the middle class (whoever they are), or the marginalized, we make policy to make sure that corporations and oligarchs are in the prime position of financial health, so that their profits and the benefits that result can trickle down to society as a whole. This is done mainly through tax policy, namely, cutting taxes for the wealthiest and the corporations, who will then invest in labour and capital with the extra money, and whose increased production and resource allocation resulting from this investment benefits society as a whole. Only, it doesn’t work out this way. These supply-side economic strategies don’t amount to anything more than large holes in government budgets (see: the Kansas City experiment). Also note that tax cuts amount to government spending, much like direct spending on social programs (it’s the opportunity cost of it all).

    Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, pictured with Finance Minister Bill Morneau on March 27, has announced a series of interest rate changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Erica Ifill asks: did anyone at the Bank of Canada look at the fact that lowering interest rates may exacerbate an affordable housing epidemic where homelessness and home insecurity are rising? The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

    In the tenor of supply-side economics/neoliberalism, the first instinct of the federal government during the coronavirus crisis was to lower interest rates, in an already low-interest rate environment. Sure. I guess. But did anyone at the Bank of Canada look at the fact that lowering interest rates may exacerbate an affordable housing epidemic where homelessness and home insecurity are rising? What happens to those people, who are more likely to be precariously unemployed, who may also be increasingly susceptible to the coronavirus if they are also deemed essential workers? Nobody thought about this? Oh.

    Property owners over the populace.

    Conversely, labour will always suffer the fate of being an afterthought—if at all—in government policy. The 1971 Unemployment Insurance Act greatly expanded unemployment insurance (UI) almost to the point of universality (it covered 96 per cent of the labour force) with: a 75 per cent wage replacement rate, coverage until 70 years of age, and a maximum duration of benefits at 51 weeks. Since the mid-1970s (coinciding with the period of the oil shocks), successive Conservative and Liberal governments have shanked this program to the point where it’s just a carcass among the debris of political and economic mendacity. All this done in the name of “tax cuts” or “efficiencies” or “small government”—or my personal favourite, “balanced budgets”—at a time when massive legislative changes must be made for the rebranded employment insurance (EI) to cover the majority of the labour force.

    UI used to be a shared cost amongst the federal government, employers, and employees. However, in 1990, the federal government removed its financial responsibility, making the rebranded EI a self-financing program whose financial liabilities were to be borne solely by employers and employees. The only reason there are EI surpluses is because the federal government just passed the puck to the rest of us. What is most egregious, however, is that starving EI wasn’t enough—Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin stole money from the EI surplus (what else do you call taking something that’s not yours without permission?) to fund social programs and it is under this ruse that Martin earned his reputation as a deficit slayer. That the $54-billion was never recovered, even with the election of Stephen Harper, is grotesque. So here we are with a program that can barely function when we need it most because politicians stole from workers to make their books look balanced. Indeed, as is the custom of the first of April, we were fooled.

    And these are your political heroes? I’d rather listen to Cardi B.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.