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Governments fight to curb COVID-19 and economic fallout of growing job losses


March 24, 2020   by Colin Perkel - THE CANADIAN PRESS


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TORONTO – The two-pronged battle to contain the spread of COVID-19 while inoculating the economy saw governments on Tuesday rush to ease financial hardship amid massive job losses even as they tightened restrictions that could last for weeks.

With large swaths of normal work and recreational life grinding to a halt and the health system under increased strain, the federal government looked to pass emergency legislation aimed at allowing for $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes.

Speaking from outside his home in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged people need direct financial help quickly as a result of what he called the “biggest health crisis our country has ever seen.”

“The demand is massive across the country,” Trudeau said ahead of an emergency sitting of a much reduced House of Commons.

But attempts to get the legislation through stalled as the Opposition Conservatives said they would support measures to help Canadians, but would not grant the Liberal government a “blank cheque.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is silhouetted as he speaks to the media about Canada’s response to the COVID-19 virus in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The various measures come as the number of COVID-related fatalities in Canada reached 25 amid a case-load approaching 2,200. The country’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said as many Canadians testing positive have contracted the virus from travel as from community transmission.

Increased stress on the health system was also apparent. Paramedics, forced to take cumbersome steps to protect themselves, warned of being stretched too thinly by more calls for help in some areas than ambulances to handle them. The Paramedic Association of Canada pleaded with people experiencing mild symptoms to avoid calling 911.

An internal planning document painted a bleak forecast for Saskatchewan.

“Even under conservative assumptions, COVID-19 will almost certainly overwhelm the health system,” according to the March 20 document obtained by The Canadian Press.

The report for the Saskatchewan Health Authority warned thousands of people in the province could die.

To prevent COVID-19 spread, experts advise frequent hand-washing and, crucially, avoiding close contact with others. The result has been an almost complete shutdown of places where people normally gather – schools, places of worship, restaurants and sports venues – putting hundreds of thousands out of work.

Signs of the economic impact were easily found. With severe restrictions on international travel, hundreds of Air Canada pilots were going on unpaid leave, while thousands of others agreed to pay cuts, their union said. Bombardier Inc. said it was suspending production in Canada and stopping all non-essential work.

About 6,900 WestJet staff, roughly half of its workforce, were leaving the carrier, almost all voluntarily through buyouts or early retirement, the company said.

The Canadian government, as is happening around the world, is hoping a massive injection of money will help douse the flames of the raging economic fire. Financial markets, slammed by the pandemic, recovered some ground on Tuesday

Related: Governments fight to curb COVID-19 and economic fallout of growing job losses

To help cushion the fallout, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a cut in electricity rates given the large numbers of people now working from home. Ford said a switch to only lowest off-peak pricing for residences, farms and small businesses would be in place for the next 45 days.

“We’re being asked to make tremendous individual sacrifices,” Ford said. “We’re leaving more money in people’s pockets.”

Trudeau said it was impossible to say how long emergency measures would need to stay in place. He warned of “much more stringent measures” if people don’t voluntarily heed urgent pleas to self-isolate.

“The duration of this crisis will be determined by the choices we make right now,” Trudeau said. “Do your part: Stay home.”

The prime minister said one million people returned to Canada this past week even as he announced further flights to repatriate Canadians stranded abroad.

The Assembly of First Nations declared a state of emergency, calling for more funding and special consideration for Canada’s 96 remote, fly-in Indigenous communities.

States of emergency are now in effect across Canada. All non-essential businesses and services in Ontario and Quebec were either shut or set to shut. The two provinces had considered closing their common border but Ford suggested such a measure would be impractical.

Public health authorities say some people infected with the highly contagious COVID-19 virus may have no signs, while most experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Most recover. However, for Canadians over 65 or with less than optimal health, the respiratory illness can be lethal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.