Government deficits, the nature of the workplace, of the role of e-commerce, of global supply chains, the future of cities, income and labour-market inequalities, the social safety net have been shaken at their foundations

Empire Company’s 250,000-square-foot distribution centre in Vaughan, Ont., on June 15, 2020.
Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail
Today Jan. 25 marks an inauspicious anniversary.
One year ago today, Canadas first case of the novel coronavirus was reported.
We could not possibly have anticipated, when that first case surfaced in a Toronto hospital, how the soon-to-be global pandemic would rewrite the economic conversation in this country. It goes beyond the severe disruption of economic activity that lockdowns, containment measures and travel restrictions have inflicted. The economic questions facing this country have been altered quite possibly, permanently.
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A year ago, we had an economy that was running at near full capacity, with unemployment at its lowest in decades. Our biggest worry was how much longer the good times of a multiyear economic expansion would continue.
Today, we have an economy that has fallen far from full speed, with entire sectors effectively closed for business, and hundreds of thousands more people without jobs. Our biggest worry is survival of businesses, jobs and human lives.
Some of the economic headaches we faced a year ago are more or less sitting right where we left them, when we turned to much more pressing matters last spring. One of them awoke from slumber last week, when Joe Biden cancelled permits for the Keystone XL pipeline. The new U.S. President will at some point also turn his attention to the fragile U.S. trade relationship with China, which was a major preoccupation for global economy watchers a year ago before COVID-19 changed our perspective of what qualifies as major.
But many elements of the economic discussion that we took for granted have been recast by the pandemic. Our concepts of government deficits, the nature of the workplace, of the role of e-commerce, of global supply chains, the future of cities, income and labour-market inequalities, the social safety net they have been shaken at their foundations. The answers to an awful lot of economic questions dont look nearly as simple as they did 12 months ago.
The reality is, they werent that simple to begin with. It has taken a major global economic and public-health crisis to expose cracks under the surface of some of our most basic economic assumptions.
A little more than a week ago on Jan. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued new mandate letters to his cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. These supersede the mandate letters the Prime Minister delivered in late 2019 before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, and Ottawas budget deficit was one-10th of what it is today. Ms. Freelands key marching orders, beyond the immediate crisis, focus on rebuilding an economy that is greener and more equitable than the one we left behind.
One of her key directives to develop and implement an Action Plan for Women in the Economy speaks to a serious tear in our economic fabric that has been visibly frayed by this pandemic.
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Before the crisis, we knew that women were underrepresented and undervalued in our labour force, and we knew that this was holding back our economic potential as a country. But we could convince ourselves that things were slowly getting better, and move on.
But the statistical reality of this crisis has exposed that as delusion. Women have borne so much more of the job and income losses from the pandemic that the term she-cession has become part of the Canadian economic lexicon. The pandemic has amplified the underlying issues child care, job insecurity, income gaps that have been limiting womens labour participation all along.
With the female labour force set back even further by the crisis, the need for policy action has grown both more urgent and more plainly obvious.
This isnt the only case of the crisis exposing economic policy shortcomings. We quickly discovered the gaping holes in our unemployment insurance system. Weve had our eyes opened to the risks of global supply chains. Were still wrestling with the concept of sick leave.
But the pandemic has also thrust new possibilities upon us. We have seen the potential of technology to redefine the way we shop and do business, communicate and educate. We have rediscovered our local communities and the businesses within them. We have tested the potential, and the limitations, of working where we live and living where we work.
We entered the pandemic talking about the need for massive government investment in public transit; should we instead focus on massive government investment in high-speed internet and 5G networks? Should we rethink our approach to education, skills training and labour mobility to provide for a vastly changed workplace? Do we need a universal basic income?
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We didnt know it a year ago, but that first case was the beginning of a new course for the national policy debate. We cant un-see what weve seen in the pandemic. Theres no going back.
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