British Columbia

How the COVID-19 slowdown could be an opportunity to repair holes in B.C.'s economy

Some say the economic slowdown could be an opportunity to make some big changes to B.C.'s economy. 

Pandemic has revealed problems with social security, trade, economist says

A man walks by a storefront in New Westminster, B.C., decorated with appreciation notes for essential workers on April 14. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry saying it will be some time before restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted and the province returns back to normal, some say the economic slowdown could be an opportunity to make some big changes to B.C.'s economy. 

Alex Hemingway, an economist and public finance policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the pandemic has exposed some critical weaknesses in our province.

"It's critical to keep in mind our pre-COVID normality had some deep problems running through it," Hemingway said on CBC's On The Coast

The pandemic has revealed problems, he says, in B.C.'s social safety net, in unemployment insurance, in the largely privatized and fragmented seniors care home network, how essential workers are compensated, and the lack of a uniform paid sick leave policy. 

"Addressing those social challenges should be front and centre as we start the economy back up," Hemingway said.

A man walks through an empty Burrard Skytrain station in downtown Vancouver on April 3. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The pandemic has also brought to light issues with trade. Dave Debruin, a cabinetmaker based in the Okanagan, says this is the time for national self-reliance.

"I think we need to go back to producing our own items," Debruin said, specifically noting the country's vulnerabilities with N95 masks. 

"It doesn't seem like such a difficult thing to produce, and as soon as we needed them, we turned to China."

Hemingway agrees, saying our lack of domestic production capacity in certain areas is a real vulnerability, especially when we are subject to the whims of administrations like the U.S. 

Speaking Wednesday at a news conference, Premier John Horgan himself described B.C. as a "small open economy that depends on trade" and depends on its trading partners making headway against the pandemic to rebuild its financial strength. 

"I've got my fingers crossed as well that we can expand our markets to new places and we can take advantage of the fact that here in British Columbia we got in front of this faster than other jurisdictions," Horgan said. 

The premier acknowledged it will be a challenge to get B.C.'s economy back to its pre-COVID condition.

But he said the competitive advantages that B.C. has — natural resources, a culture of innovation, the tech and entertainment sectors — will remain after the pandemic ends. 

"All we've done is slow down the economy so we can flatten the curve and when we start up again, [our] competitive advantages will remain," he said. 

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With files from The Early Edition, On The Coast