To many of us, it might seem like an eternity has passed since the World Health Organization announced in January 2020 the appearance of a mysterious coronavirus-related pneumonia in Wuhan, China. Today, COVID-19 has evolved into four variants around the world, infecting 188.3 million people and causing more than four million deaths. Throughout this time, one truth has resonated loudly: COVID-19 did not break the system, it exposed a broken system. Indeed.
In the decades before COVID-19, governments had shifted away from their interventionist stance for fear that excessive control of the economy would interfere with market forces. Trickle-down economic theory was supposed to lead to the optimal allocation of profits and rewards throughout society, with presumably equitable outcomes. Governments and civil society relied on corporate competition and their inherent ethics as drivers for good jobs, research and innovation, as well as clean and safe technological developments. The problem of pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, when acknowledged, was going to be solved by simply pricing externalities adequately.
Driven by these postulates, neoliberalism drew devotees all over the world, bringing about market deregulation, low corporate taxes, decreased royalties and higher industry subsidies, as well as the privatization of essential services such as health, water, electricity and transport infrastructure. This system, left unchecked, tends to extremes and leads to catastrophes. The result: today we face dramatic, simultaneous crises threatening every facet of our society.
The axioms of the above theory were wrong. The “more free markets, more deregulation and less oversight” jungle law of neoliberalism was in fact just another distortion of reality — another economic model that fails to account for the complexity and interconnectedness of our societies. How could infinite economic growth models work on a finite-resource planet? Well, they cannot, and they imperil the long-term livability of our planet.
Four out of the nine planetary systems that sustain life as we know it are disrupted; climate change, species extinction, geochemical flows and biosphere integrity are reaching tipping points beyond which they simply can’t recover. In fact, July 29, 2021 marked Earth Overshoot Day, the date when global demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that same time period. Dreadfully, Canada passed this dangerous threshold on March 14, 2021.
One thing is evident: we can no longer believe that a short-term, profit-driven private sector will self-regulate or take us out of any environmental, sanitary or financial crisis. Quite the contrary — just like they did during the 2008 financial crisis, copious numbers of big corporations have reached record-high profits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many nations, Canada has had to tackle the pandemic while addressing pre-existing and interconnected crises, such as increasingly destructive climate disasters, growing socio-economic inequalities and the deterioration of the public health system — as well as obstacles to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, including a challenging recognition of history of genocide. Moreover, confinement and lockdowns limited the operations of parliaments and governments at all levels. We have seen unprecedented and generous economic measures and while they led some to hope we could establish a guaranteed livable income, the distribution of financial assistance is only one element of the measures needed to simultaneously address the multiple crises we face and those on the horizon.
We need democracy back — stronger, wiser, and more open to new ideas — with all its checks and balances restored. Governments must reassert their authority to regulate for the collective well-being, refresh the understanding of their responsibilities towards society, considerably improve transparency and access to information on public spending, and take immediate actions to simultaneously address those crises, as citizens have so often expressed during the pandemic.
With a looming federal election, politicians are touring Canada this summer. As concerned and active citizens in a revitalized democracy, let us demand that political platforms describe in detail the goals and means to bring government to a bolder, fairer, more efficient, more dynamic and more proactive role that will put us on a clear path to sustainable prosperity. Let us demand nothing less than a revitalized democracy equipped to face the multiple challenges we can no longer ignore through our attachment to outdated and now dangerous economic models.
Senator Rosa Galvez represents the Bedford region of Quebec.
A similar version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2021 edition of The Hill Times.