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How will our funding priorities change after COVID-19?

Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been far from perfect, but we have a few factors working in our benefit: strong public services like universal health-care coverage, a social safety net in the form of CERB payments, and comparatively less politicization of mask-wearing and physical distancing mandates than our southern neighbours. But the social services that have protected Canadians during COVID-19 are not guaranteed, and public sector funds are continually under threat, like in the case of health-care and education funding. Moving forward, Canadians will have to consider how funding priorities will need to change so that we remain prepared for unexpected crises — even after the pandemic is over. 

Cuts to health care have loomed large in some provinces in recent years, including in Ontario and Alberta. In 2019, the Ontario government released a plan that included cuts to health-care spending and privatization efforts that advocates said would increase crowding in hospitals and reduce the ability to adequately care for patients. The cuts came after several decades of stagnation in the province’s health-care sector; Ontario had 30,000 hospital beds in 2019 — the same number it has had since 1999, despite the fact the population has since grown by 27 per cent

Cuts to public education have also been seen. With widespread misinformation circulating about the virus over the past six months, the critical thinking skills, media literacy, and science education that children learn in school is more important than ever and should not be overlooked. Despite this, education budgets were recently slashed in Alberta, part of a larger attack on the public sector in the province. The cuts will result in an estimated 1,400 fewer full-time teaching positions, while schools in the province are being told to dip into their savings to pay for any COVID-19-related costs. 

Investing in the resources of most value to us — like health-care services that are agile enough to respond to major public health crises, education campaigns that can help fight against misinformation, and universal basic income to ensure that Canadians are not living in poverty regardless of their employment status — are just a few of the steps Canada can take to prepare for the post-pandemic future.

Conversely, funding for other services that do not serve the goals of health, safety, and equality should be reconsidered. Calls from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to re-allocate police department funding to other public services, such as social workers, mental-health response teams, and drug counselling services, are one such example. In many cities in Canada, police departments are often the most expensive line item on city budgets despite a long history of police violence against racialized Canadians, especially Black and Indigenous people. Moving these funds to other services that are more beneficial to the community as a whole is one move in the right direction.

If some scientific predictions are right, the COVID-19 pandemic could be just the first example of similar crises in coming years. Anthony Fauci and David Morens, two leading voices on COVID-19 at the the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., recently published an article in the journal Cell describing how the novel coronavirus could be the start of a new age of pandemics caused by environmental degradation and globalization. “We remain at risk for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century,” they write. “It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”

Many Canadians have gained new perspectives over the course of the pandemic, having come together at protests and witnessing the interconnectedness of a variety of socially damaging policies and practices like police violence, discrimination, misinformation, and health-care inequality. Canada’s post-pandemic reality should reflect these new insights, starting with our funding priorities.