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Column: We need renewal, not a restart

Sheelagh Matthews' Best Interest column
sheelagh matthews

Instead of rushing towards a restart of our economy further to COVID-19 curbing measures, what about moving towards a renewal that incorporates the lessons we have learned from our actions? This is our big chance to get things right.

Who do we call when we need testing or treatment for COVID-19? We don’t call a corporation to come to our rescue. No, we call our publicly funded health-care system to take care of us. (And if this isn’t a good enough reason to do all we can to protect and preserve our beloved universal health care system here in Alberta, I don’t know what is.)

Would a corporation pay its employees to stay home to curb the spread of coronavirus for the common good? No. It is not a corporation’s job to look after the common good, and we have no business expecting it. A corporation’s job is to make profit and provide a healthy return on investment to their shareholders. Period.

The role of looking after the common good belongs to government. That’s why Canadians were presented with the opportunity to participate in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, giving employed and self-employed Canadians directly affected by COVID-19 an income to pay for essential needs. That’s why some municipal governments are considering passing laws for the wearing of masks in public indoor spaces.  And that’s why we have what we call public services. Paid for by the taxpaying public, public services are the way we look after our common needs. We rely on them so much that we often take them for granted. Which ones did you use today? A road, a sidewalk, a park?

Public transportation infrastructure, public health care, public emergency services, public parks and recreation facilities, public education, public libraries, public transit, public utilities (heat, power, water), public telecommunications, public museums, theatres, and art galleries, public broadcasting, public social services, public policing, public courts, public environmental protections, and public waste management are just some of the services that provide for our common needs.

While many of these services are still in the public realm, not all are, or at least not completely.  Albertans have long been on the road to corporate privatization, one that we now have a chance to rethink thanks to coronavirus. Like those controversial “public-private partnerships” (P3) to build things like schools. Or the move to oil and gas deregulation in the mid-1980s, when we gave in to the corporate mantra of “let the market set the price.” (A system that works, at least to corporate advantage, until prices tank. Even so, it still works as governments are then called upon for taxpayer bailouts.)

Don’t be fooled by the capitalist rhetoric of privatization. It only serves the 1 per cent, it doesn’t serve the common good. I’m not talking communism here; I’m referring to what Canada used to be like before the 1980s, before neoliberal policies started taking hold.

Today, we face a worrying re-shifting of priorities for our treasured natural areas in Alberta’s provincial parks. Then there’s our heavy-handed Alberta Ministry of Health that seems determined to privatize our health care system. Is this how we want to restart? I think not.

As we come out of lockdown and other COVID-19 curbing measures, what we really need is a renewal for the way in which our common needs are provided. There are great minds out there of a progressive bent. Let’s put them to use! A renewal based on an understanding of what we really relied upon during the pandemic, namely public services—now that’s in our best interest.