As Sask. government considers new measures, economists weigh impacts of locking down

·7 min read

The public is waiting to see what Premier Scott Moe and chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab will do to control the spread of the virus.

The answer could come at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, where a COVID-19 update is expected. The news conference was originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, but was postponed until 3 p.m. CST the next day.

For the past two weeks, Moe has heard concerns about the implications of locking down versus continuing with smaller interventions.

On Saturday, Moe said in a radio interview he was against the NDP proposal of a three-week "circuit breaker" which would close non-essential businesses and move restaurants to take out or delivery only.

Moe called the approach "disastrous."

"That's why we are looking at every other lever that we have…available to us to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and try to minimize, in every way that we can, the impact on our small businesses," said Moe.

Two weeks ago, Moe said business restrictions were not under consideration.

Days later, 442 doctors called for several interventions, which included targeted closure of businesses or areas in the community that have played a role in COVID-19 transmissions and regional shutdowns where outbreaks are ongoing.

Moe said he preferred a slowdown to a lockdown.

"We're going to do everything we can to ensure that they're going to be able to make it through this without a circuit breaker, without a shutdown or without a lockdown," Moe said Saturday after the province recorded an all-time high of 439 new cases.

On Monday, the government announced Moe was self-isolating after a potential exposure at Prince Albert restaurant Original Joe's on November 15.

'Little by little measures, not enough' says economist

Across Canada, several provinces are grappling with the decision to shutdown certain areas in response to spiking cases and hospitalizations.

On Monday, Saskatchewan's seven-day average was an all-time high of 219 new cases. The province recorded a daily high for deaths with 4, hospitalizations, 106 and active cases 2,864.

University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Hollis said Alberta, like Saskatchewan has introduced so-called "targeted measures" to slow down the spread of the virus rather than lockdown or shut down certain parts of the economy.

For example, both provinces recently announced a restaurant and bar curfew of 11 p.m.

"I think we've reached the point certainly here in Alberta, and it's my understanding also in Saskatchewan where if you just let it continue, then we're going to be forced to have that shut down anyway. And it could be worse and longer, plus we will have increased mortality, plus increased hospital expenses," he said.

"The little by little measures are clearly not enough."

"If the spread of infections continues unabated, then it's clear what's going to happen and the hospitals would be overwhelmed. There would be so many COVID cases they could not be treated properly. And other people who need medical care would also be at risk."

Hollis said at that point either provincial government would be forced to impose "Draconian" measures of closing retail, restaurants, gyms and even high schools.

He said a "circuit breaker" which is a short-term lockdown is "beneficial" for both COVID-19 prevention and the economy. He said that option potentially prevents a more serious widespread lockdown when the health system is "overwhelmed."

"It's not a case of can we protect the economy by compromising people's health a little bit? It doesn't work like that."

"It doesn't make sense to be able to think you can run an economy successfully if people know that they are at great risk of getting sick," Hollis said.

Provided by Aidan Hollis
Provided by Aidan Hollis

Hollis said the government needs to target places where people are in close contact for an extended period of time.

He said if the restaurants and bars are closed, retail stores may follow as has been the case in Toronto and Manitoba with some exceptions.

"Then all the business goes to Amazon, every retail store is wondering what happened to their most profitable month of the year."

Hollis said in that case people have to be prepared to pay more in taxes to support those affected by their business closing temporarily.

"I do want to say that I recognize that as a person who has a steady job that is going to be paid whether or not things are shut down, I'm in a privileged position and I feel that, the solution to this is that all of us have to be prepared to pay our taxes to support the people who are put out of work because of a shutdown."

Hollis said people face a "terrible dilemma" of choosing to make money or protect themselves from the virus.

"Many people are now being put in the terrible dilemma of having to choose to keep their business open so they can make money or else voluntarily closing it in order to protect themselves and their staff."

Hollis said governments will be judged on how they handled their pandemic response. He pointed to jurisdictions like New Zealand, Melbourne, Australia and Taiwan which have been able to keep COVID-19 low or flatten a spiking curve.

"Everyone's looking at South Dakota and saying they have just done a terrible job. And I don't think that we want to be like South Dakota. It's not about keeping the economy open because that's not what's happened anyway."

As of Monday, South Dakota had recorded 819 COVID-19-related deaths, with a population of 884,000.

Saskatchewan has recorded 37 deaths with a population of 1.17 million.

'There is no right answer'

Jason Childs an associate professor of economics at the University of Regina said the issue facing governments is not versus health or someone's business or someone's life.

He said it comes down to "taking one set of risks and weighing them against another set of risks."

"If we don't lockdown there are going to be more people exposed and at risk of dying from COVID. If we do lockdown we are going to see increased deaths due to addiction backsliding, family breakdown, suicides likely to rise and some of that impact is going to come via the reduction in economic activity."

Childs said a decrease in economic activity equals a decrease in well-being.

"There is no right answer here no matter what we do people are going to die," Childs said.

Childs called the decision a "worst-case scenario" of cost-benefit analysis because of the stakes.

"What is the threshhold of lives lost where you go yes that is worth it. I have no idea what the answer is obviously at some point you say yes it's worth it. I don't know where that line is and I'm really glad I don't have to draw it."

Last week, Premier Moe said the province lost 70,000 jobs earlier in the pandemic and gained 55,000 back. He said the net loss of 15,000 would balloon to "tens of thousands" if there was another lockdown.

Childs said that estimate is "plausible."

"I don't know how many (businesses) would survive another two to three-month lockdown."

Childs said lockdowns should be done exceedingly reluctantly and exceedingly carefully, or else you risk an uncooperative public.

"If you get active resistance to public health measures, it's over."

Childs said there is a "finite" capacity for compliance.

"It's a resource that can't be exhausted."

As for the need for a lockdown Childs said, "I think we're getting close."

CBC News Graphics
CBC News Graphics

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