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OPINION: Coronavirus pandemic response is by turns panicky, plodding

We thought we had dodged a recession, but the black swan we feared has appeared. COVID-19 will corrode our political, economic, medical and social systems. Happier times are not imminent. We need not panic, but we need to worry.
coronavirus

We thought we had dodged a recession, but the black swan we feared has appeared. COVID-19 will corrode our political, economic, medical and social systems.

Happier times are not imminent. We need not panic, but we need to worry.

If we can look beyond the deaths and cases, other early indicators of its impact are deeply discouraging, as is our early behaviour and our governments’ responses.

Get ready, here is a long list of what we can expect.

Governments abroad may fall (South Korea’s, perhaps) and businesses here and elsewhere will falter. We are teetering on global recession. Mass gatherings like pilgrimages, conventions, concerts and games are being cancelled. The Summer Olympics in Japan can’t possibly proceed.

Before long, many of our families, friends and co-workers — and many of us — will bear some form of the virus, even if mostly mildly and even symptom-free.

It won’t be long before conferences are routinely scrubbed here — the Rolling Stones in mid-May at B.C. Place, seriously? — and before British Columbians are told to stay away because of COVID-19’s presence and eventual prevalence in our province.

The airport and hotels will be much quieter this summer, the cruise docks even more so. Our work sites and places of worship will be far more home-based.

We know online fake news will hasten hysteria and dupe some of us into bogus cures, although a perverse result of Donald Trump’s rosy messaging is that it might persuade enough Americans to consume instead of sink its economy.

Fear contagion will worsen when we start routinely testing and comprehending the scope of a viral strain only months in the making. A vaccine, as COVID-19 mutates, is a year away.

Already we have overreacted socially: hoarding goods, avoiding restaurants, cancelling meetings, forfeiting travel and vacations, masking as we walk. Good, though, we are learning not to touch our faces and eschewing handshakes for fist pumps and foot taps. The last abrupt effect like this, 9/11, suggests the worst is ahead.

We have overreacted economically, too, with a pre-emptive reduction in interest rates. No one asked for it and we may regret we got it — and the cut likely coming in April because stock markets shrugged and the sell-off continued. The resurgent local housing market might superheat again, now that our borrowing selves have been let off leash.

But we have also strangely underreacted politically. Our provincial and federal governments have mainly pressed the mute button on what we will face. Ottawa has now weighed in, but vaguely, a little like its tardy response to the blockades. Our provincial administration is missing in action, apart from our superb chief health officer.

Governments are counselling personal caution and calm, rather than educating the country that what has hit China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and many others will come here in some form. Their composure risks conveying there is little to fear, rather than much to understand.

It would be better now to measuredly explain what we need to brace for over the next months and to reveal what’s in store as support.

True, no government can fix our supply chain problems from China (or, for that matter, blockades) or populate a restaurant or cajole us on to a cruise ship. True also, we may stand not to suffer the same fate as other countries because our medical infrastructure — hospitals, clinics, health workers, respirators and medicine — is sound, if susceptible to supply chain issues. But we won’t know until it happens if the system will be overwhelmed, and we would be wise not to take anything for granted.

At a macroeconomic level, the Bank of Canada has been proactive. You can disagree with the measure, but you can’t say it came too late. The same can’t be said for our governments; their determination to wait to reveal what they will provide until the virus goes viral is a bad decision. Far better is to level with us, treat us like adults to be respected and give us the bad news.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouverand vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

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