Towards a New Normal

Column / Don Newman

Everyone wants to know when things are going to return to normal, but no one can say when the self-isolation will end. When standing next to someone isn’t taking your life in your hands. Or when attending a concert, a baseball game or sitting on a warm summer evening with friends on a patio will again be permitted.

Whether it’s in six weeks, six months or a year, we do know that a kind of normal will return. What is less clear is the type of economy Canada will have to support all the things that make life the pleasure it usually is and what type of world Canada and Canadians will be in.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the second thing in the first 20 years of the 21st century that will change life as it has been previously lived. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the first. Before 9/11, security to board a commercial airline was relatively rudimentary. Certainly, rudimentary enough that the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center carried on board their weapons used to seize the planes without being detected by the security screening. Now, before getting on a plane, particularly on an international flight or to the United States, travellers practically have to do a striptease before being allowed to board.

COVID-19 will have a similar effect, not in terms of security directly but certainly in the way countries and people relate to each other. In fact, the pandemic that began in China and has swept the world could be the end of globalization as we’ve known it. President Donald Trump with his “America First” agenda had already started down this road, but the beggar-thy-neighbour moves in the scramble for the life-saving medical supplies that have been a signature of the response to the pandemic do not bode well for what could lie ahead.  

For Canada, there have been some unforeseen revelations. Despite the revised free trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico, President Trump and his administration initially blocked half a million surgical quality masks needed by front line medical workers in hospitals dealing with COVID-19 victims from being shipped to Canada, even though the masks had been ordered by the Canadian government. It took a full court press by federal and provincial officials to get the masks delivered, and then only because 3M, the manufacturer of the masks, weighed in on Canada’s side. Despite that one success, it’s clear that, at least as long as this president is in office, relations between Canada and the United States can no longer be relied on.

Ironically, it is China that became one of Canada’s more reliable suppliers of masks and other personal protection equipment for the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff on the COVID-19 front line. The Chinese have been willing to do business with Canada despite the ongoing diplomatic stand-off over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and retaliatory imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in China.

The precariousness of international supply chains has led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government to decided they had to adopt a “Made in Canada” strategy and convince Canadian manufacturers to begin producing masks, gowns, test kits, ventilators and other items used to fight COVID-19. 

But the federal government was a little late to the game. The premiers of both Quebec and Ontario had announced that the same shortages, diverted shipments and unreliability of Trump’s America had convinced each of them to create the capacity for home-grown manufacturing of essential supplies. Not just within Canada, but within their provincial boundaries. The longer the pandemic lingers the greater will become the manufacturing capacity. And once it does end the capacity will be shifted to other goods. 

Other countries will react the same way. “Buy local” will gain adherents. COVID-19 has all but eliminated international travel for now, although some of it will obviously return. But the pandemic didn’t start on this continent and people are likely to be more skeptical and hesitant about exposure to “foreign” things. The possibility of a smaller, more expensive world as the new normal looms in the future. 

So, while sooner or later things will return to normal. It’s just that when it does, normal won’t be the same normal it was before.  

Columnist Don Newman, Executive Vice President of Rubicon Strategies in Ottawa, is a lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Galley.