Chairman's Desk

COVID-19 is a catalyst for change as much as a crisis

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 29, 2020.

Responding to the events of the past few weeks, Canadians have proven their remarkable capacity for compassion, understanding and sacrifice. As the impact of COVID-19 has set in around the world, here at home our governments, businesses and fellow citizens have, for the most part, set out in earnest to do the right, Canadian thing.

In Ottawa, that’s meant an $112-billion bailout package passed with multi-party co-operation, albeit with a few tactical hiccups along the way. For provincial and territorial governments, it has meant ramping up expert medical briefings and passing legislative relief of their own. For each of us, doing the right thing has meant self-isolation, staying at home and appreciating the very real sacrifices made by health-care professionals and front-line workers.

As I wrote in this column last week, Canadians can rightfully take some comfort in the serious and responsible approach of their political leaders, who continue to demonstrate their resolve to bolster our capacity for recovery: medical and economic.

But the reality is, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 will go well beyond its medical and economic impact. Comparable more to the events of 1918 than the 2008 recession, this pandemic will upend the status quo for every country, every sector and every walk of life. So, while we, of course, need to focus on our near-term response to the quakes and tremors of this crisis, we are damned if we ignore the various tectonic-like shifts that are taking place well beneath our feet.

Before this outbreak, the past decade was marked by a transformative redefinition of issues like income inequality, tax fairness, political freedom and the purpose of the corporation.

Consider the Occupy movement, which followed the financial bailouts of the 2008 recession. While it has faded, its underlying principles and impulses live on in movements like France’s gilets jaunes and the wave of populism that has since swept Western politics.

Similarly unprecedented protests for democracy in places like Hong Kong, Lebanon and India have abated in recent months as now 10 per cent of the world has been ushered into quarantine.

As for discussions of the role of the corporation and ESG (environment, social and governance) considerations, these will no doubt take a back seat to companies’ bottom lines as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the global economy.

But to think of these phenomena as trends that will simply “pause” while this crisis plays out, only to resume after the fact in the same form and with the same velocity, is simply incorrect. Each of these issues is a log in a fire on which this pandemic has been poured like an accelerant. Rather, what is correct is that they will return more disruptive and ferocious than ever.

On an individual level, this health crisis is not equally trying on every household, as exemplified by social media outrage over wealthy individuals’ ability to seemingly jump the queue for testing kits. Even the embrace of crucial work and study from home initiatives belies the tragic reality that for many employees and students, home is not a safe or comfortable work environment.

COVID-19 has not only revealed and exacerbated these inequities, it has ensured there will be real and lasting fissures in civil society as well. It has become impossible for us to return to the norms and social order we have enjoyed for so long.

The fact is, once this is done, major corporations and wealthy people will be viewed very differently. Just as we saw in 2008, that mistrust and sense of inequality will be compounded by the very responses that governments now deem essential to our recovery.

And so, governments and business must realize the playing field has changed. Entirely. With that change must come a response that acknowledges the world looks very different. That means not just fiddling around the edges or making incremental improvements but an entirely new response.

And there is more. Government and business leaders must understand they will be judged by how they acted in this time of crisis.

If we don’t address the fault lines exposed by this pandemic, the aftershocks will prove even more damaging than the quake.