Our small towns and rural communities across Canada are experiencing fallout from COVID-19 in unique and devastating ways. It has once again highlighted the rural/urban divide that exists in Canada which is reflected in our national policies and politics. The national media has also been negligent in covering a world that too many of them simply do not understand. Instead, they focus on Trump’s temper tantrums or the Prime Minister’s staged photo ops every morning, when we have people fighting for their lives - not just because of the virus, but because the response to the virus is bringing economic ruin.
We should be able to do two things at once! Flatten the curve and allow low risk sectors to begin to re-open. To risk understatement, governments have not done a great job of getting the right kind of help into the hands of those most in need. Mom and pop businesses on main streets of small towns everywhere don’t qualify for programs designed to help more traditional businesses in the manufacturing sector. If you run a one or two-person operation should you not be eligible for government programs? If they open for a few hours each week, should that disqualify you for aid? The small, local newspapers have -to date-received very little advertising from the federal government. Instead Ottawa is buying ads on TV and in national chains. More than ever these small operations need a hand up. Help needs to be more targeted and relevant for different parts of the economy.
It’s as if government does not understand that small service towns in agricultural communities exist for a reason - to ensure that those who supply our food and the energy to run our economy can carry on. The growing season is about to begin. We can’t risk the food supply for another year and our producers still need a store and a school and a doctor and a shovel and fertilizer and machinery.
In the Prairies, farmers were already struggling before COVID as a result of bad weather and China’s ban on exports such as canola. They, just like resource-based companies, have struggled to keep cash in hand because of a punitive carbon tax, including extra costs for grain drying. Ottawa’s response is to offer farmers more access to loans. What nobody needs right now is more debt - with no prospect of income.
And the energy sector, which employs over 34,000 Saskatchewanians, was already in a tough spot with prices dropping and no pipelines to get the product to markets. If farmers and energy sector workers have no income, then who will be buying the goods and services of our small local businesses? It will mean more layoffs and more permanently closed doors.
This isn’t an either/or choice between lives and livelihoods. The health crisis and the economic crisis are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people and before we can get back to day-to-day life, we need available testing to determine who is, and isn’t, carrying the virus. But without people buying, creating, and contributing, then we will not have the resources to fund the cost of the fight.
A total lockdown for another 6 months will take a huge human toll, leave more under or unemployed, and will push Canada’s economy into depression.
The Bank of Canada says the virus has created a downturn that is already the sharpest on record. GDP - the combined value of all our economic activity - shrunk by 9% last month alone.
Rural communities require economic activity to survive. And we need consistent, fast and reliable internet access to facilitate kids’ homeschooling or local producers reaching out to local customers and telehealth services which are key in areas with no or sporadic 911 service.
Looking at past pandemics, rural communities are often hit last, but the hit is hard. So we need to make sure we have beds and PPE supplies, just in case. And we need timely access to hospitals and care facilities that are often miles away.
And we need to test as many as we can and continue to practice physical distancing. Doing so will ensure we can safely allow workers, in virus-free areas, or in areas that don’t require a great deal of social interaction, to slowly get back to work.
And Canada needs to act boldly, now, to regenerate our own supply chain, and not just advocate for ‘Made in Canada,’ but ensure on it. We must not ever again be so reliant on China.
Right now, we should be investing in our rural communities. And fighting for them. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is a going to be hard work. We can only hope it is possible.
Pamela Wallin is a well known retired media personality and current senator from Wadena Sask.