Third reading of Bill C-20, An Act respecting further COVID-19 measures – Sen. Harder

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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City lights, Toronto

Hon. Peter Harder: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

With those words in November of 1942, Churchill rallied his people, after the defeat of Rommel at El-Alamein, and it marked a turning point in the war. The analogy is, of course, an imperfect one, but I believe it gives us pause, after six months of dealing with the coronavirus, to take stock of where we are in this beginning.

Six months since Canada’s first case — almost literally six months — more than 100,000 Canadians have been infected, 9,000 have died, 80% in long-term care. Globally, greater than 15 million citizens of this planet have been infected, and the numbers keep rising. The reason I am optimistic is that I believe we have learned, the last six months, what some of the key actions that are necessary to at least get ahold of this contagion. I suggest that there are eight.

First, we must pay attention to science and inherently reward agility and flexibility in policy response to changing science and circumstances. Some in the Senate today suggested that the government should have been aware of the changes that have taken place in the last six months and done a number of initiatives earlier, including those that are in this bill. I take a different view. I take the view that a government that initiates early actions and responds to changing circumstances quickly is more adept and agile in listening to its citizens. So first: science, flexiblity and agility.

Second, we knew that we had to keep the curve within ICU capacity. When we first debated these measures several months ago, the curve was out of line with our capacity and there was a real threat as to whether our health care systems would be able to deal with the case load. Keep the curve within the ICU capacity.

Third, we know that the future will increasingly be about testing and tracing. Enhancing our capacity for testing and tracing is crucial to dealing with the curve.

Fourth, PPE and masks. We must ensure that we have a supply of PPE in the certain event of some degree of a second wave.

Fifth is social distancing. This is difficult for many of us. The science of social distancing has proven that social distancing with masks, tracing and prudent actions by citizens is requisite to keeping this contagion within the bounds of management.

Sixth, travel and borders. Borders should be crossed only for essential travel until we’re confident as to how the management of this contagion outside of our borders is taking place. Even within Canada, there are some jurisdictions that, despite the protestations of some, continue to prohibit in-province travel. Keeping a prudent approach has been helpful to us in the last six months, and we ought to recognize that is likely to continue.

Seventh, and very importantly, is keeping liquidity in the economy. That’s what this bill is perfecting. It is responding to the changes and the adaptations of the economy as measures were introduced some months ago. Liquidity in the economy has been hugely advantageous to Canada and the ability of the Canadian economy to respond effectively in the reopening phase.

This leads me to the eighth point: We need a gradual and strategic reopening in the context of PPE, distancing, appropriate testing, et cetera.

The above requires much of all of us. This is not a government responsibility alone. It is governments, but more importantly, it is citizens.

Honourable senators will know that as I travel to the Senate, I drive past the United Church in Manotick, which always has a lovely phrase of some sort that gets me thinking. Today’s was: “Patience, too, is a form of action.” We need to remind our citizens that patience in what we are doing, with masks, social distancing, adjusting our legal frameworks and responding to the changing virus, is a form of action and we need to be patient. COVID fatigue is our greatest danger at this time of relative balance in our medical system.

This brings me to what I really wanted to say today, and it is about six urgent priorities I would wish the government to consider as it moves forward in this phase. I happen to believe in the architecture that David Dodge has suggested in a paper that he published, where he said that 2020 is about reopening the economy, 2021 will be about recovery and 2021-plus is about rebuilding the economy. The quote that I started my comments with today was from Churchill in 1942. There were three years left in the war, and the war, of course, didn’t even get to the recovery. It’s not without a sense that there is much in front of us that I suggest six urgent priorities.

The first is, of course, that we should reopen. But we should have strategic and thoughtful reopening and not go too quickly. If we go too quickly and need to retrench, we need to do that quickly too. In my province, Ontario, I believe that the reopening of bars has been undertaken far too quickly. If you look at the 60% of the most recent cases, they are youths. When we started this debate six months ago, that didn’t seem to be a preoccupation; it was the over-60 population that was the preoccupation. We need to learn from the United Kingdom, Australia — and I won’t even mention the United States — where there has been a recurrence of the virus because there was too quick an opening and not a strategic, sectoral opening. Be strategic in reopening.

Second, we need to focus on child care. This is not just the Government of Canada, it’s provincial, regional and city governments. Child care is both a short- and long-term challenge. In the short term, we cannot have a reopening without an assurance by those we want to have return to work, that child care needs will be available, particularly if education returns, and schools opening are out of balance with our expectations of workforce reintegration. I worry that we will particularly lose female participation in the workforce if we do not have adequate, urgent short-term child care. What this pandemic has taught us is that we actually need a long-term solution in Canada. This is not something the Government of Canada alone can do, but it is an issue where there needs to be leadership from the Government of Canada, in cooperation with other jurisdictions, to ensure that resilience and ability to participate in the workforce it is not undermined by the absence of child care.

Third, I want to make a plea for international students. On May 1, when we debated a previous bill, I spoke about the gap concerning international students. International education is a $21.6-billion enterprise in Canada — and those are 2016 numbers, so it is surely more than that. It directly employs about 170,000 people, and it is greater in its economic impact than auto parts, lumber or the aircraft industry. It is not to be sneezed at. At the end of March, there were 565,000 international students in Canada. Because of travel restrictions, the experts tell me that about 80% have remained in Canada, and 50% of those who have remained will be in some difficulty when returning to their educational institutions this fall. This 300,000 or so international student population needs to be urgently addressed — as we are on the cusp of August — and we should remind ourselves that the inability of international students to participate in our universities and colleges will undermine the economic well-being of those institutions, let alone the economic cost of the loss of international students. So I would urge that international students be given high priority in the coming days.

The third point is a vaccine, both the invention and procurement of a vaccine. Others have spoken about the importance of a vaccine. We know that until and unless there is a vaccine that is effective, we will be in a containment mode in reopening and recovery for some time. I would urge that action not only be around supporting a vaccine, which has been supported by a significant government intervention, but we also need to assure Canadians that there will be an appropriate procurement of vaccines available to Canadians to give them confidence that as we move to the recovery phase of this pandemic, Canadians will not be disadvantaged.

Fifth, we need to continue and upgrade our focus on international aspects of COVID. Vaccine nationalism is not the policy solution that we should be trumpeting. I was pleased to see the Prime Minister attach his name along with other world leaders in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about cooperation on international COVID work, but I would urge the G7 and other international bodies that have responsibility for this to devote more attention. We also must become more informed ourselves, because we can have a vaccine and reopen in Canada but our vulnerability will be global.

Sixth and finally, I would like to return to a more normal Parliament. The Finance Committee has talked a bit about this, and I know there have been some politics around this — strange that Parliament would have some politics. My own view is that a hybrid model is the only way we can get to an early return to a more normal Parliament. I would urge us to put the politics aside and get to the technical ability to do this in the fall.

Why is that important? It’s important that the national institution of Parliament reopens, as we are encouraging the private sector to reopen, but it is also to deal with the public policy issues that are not just in relationship to COVID-19 and its responses; there are other pieces of legislation that are ripe for debate and the contestation of views. We should encourage the government to return to a more normal Parliament — it will never be completely normal until we have a vaccine that is efficacious — so that we can test the confidence appropriately of the parliamentary institutions for the actions government has taken.

I want to end by thanking Senator Moncion for sponsoring this legislation and for the adaptability and the improvements it brings to the programs we have already adopted. I ask you to support the legislation as we get to a third reading vote. Thank you.

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