As we enter the final quarter of this year, many Canadians are likely more than ready to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020, the year of the pandemic. But what if, in some ways at least, 2021 could actually be even more difficult?
Consider this: Besides killing nearly 10,000 Canadians and more than 1 million people worldwide, COVID-19 has wreaked a huge economic wound on Canadians, their businesses, and their families. The pandemic has left many in serious distress. The government, like many around the world, responded immediately with emergency financial assistance and loan programs, whose acronyms became quickly familiar to those in need: CERB (Canada Emergency Relief Benefit), CEWS (Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy), and CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account), to name just a few.
A new report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) now projects a budget deficit of nearly 329 billion, 15 percent of GDP. (This does not include proposals announced in the recent Throne Speech.) It also takes for granted that the virus and public health measures will remain fixtures on the horizon for the next 12 to 18 months. The PBO calculation, however, assumes that the emergency spending measures will end when this fiscal year ends.
Some version of most of these programs, like CERB and CEWS were urgent and needed during the shutdown to weather the biggest economic crisis Canada has experienced since the Second World War. As of late last month, nearly nine million Canadians have applied for CERB, and the government has paid out more than $80 billion to those who qualified.
Across all sectors of the Canadian economy, including construction, manufacturing, education, health, hospitality, retail and others, more than one million applicants for the wage subsidies have received over $37.4 billion through the CEWS program. Small businesses received $1.32 billion in rent relief while many of their employees were working from home, and their doors were closed or their operations were at reduced capacity. More than 70,000 businesses received CEBA loans totalling more than $18 billion in interest-free loans of up to $40,000 for eligible enterprises and non-profits. Charities and food banks received an additional $425 million more to support community services to Canadians affected by the pandemic.
At some point soon, these programs will end because such extraordinary spending measures will no longer be sustainable. When the government’s miraculous money faucet is turned off, what happens next? As we move into 2021, many will face a tough, uphill climb. Families, businesses, and charities will be pursuing recovery as many of the supports they depended on for survival will no longer be available. It may be a shock to the system, much like what a patient in hospital feels when recovering from surgery and the morphine drip for pain management is suddenly no longer there.