The government has done a lot right since this crisis began, but letting airlines keep Canadians’ money isn’t right.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 13, 2020.
OTTAWA—Most people just want to know when this will be over. But the bigger question is just how long it will take to dig us out of the hole that the COVID-19 global pandemic has created.
From students, to minimum wage workers, from small business owners, to retirees, everyone is hearing the giant sucking sound from their own financial nest egg. The government is shovelling money out of the door as quickly as it can.
There is the $2,000 per month stipend known as the Canada Emergency Benefit Response available for up to 16 weeks. Almost five million people have already applied for that benefit.
Provincial governments are offering their own programs to assist individuals and small businesses. Via the banks, the federal government is offering the Canada Emergency Business Account, providing $40,000 interest-free loans to companies with annual payrolls of $50,000 or more, payable at the end of 2022.
Governments are stepping up to support companies with income losses ranging from 15 per cent to catastrophic. There is mortgage relief for those who can prove need. All provinces have ensured that no tenant will be evicted during this Covid-fighting period. The federal government has announced $2-billion in medical protection purchases, in an attempt to supplement the dwindling personal protective equipment in nursing homes and hospitals across the country.
Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland characterized the government’s actions as the largest financial response to crisis in the history of the country. She is right. And this is also the crisis that has touched the most people.
American media references compare the situation to Pearl Harbour or the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Centre. But in the case of 9/11 the epicentre of New York was very far away from most of us. Ditto for Pearl Harbour and the two World Wars.
In the case of COVID-19, there is only one part of the country that has escaped the virus thus far: Nunavut. Even remote communities in the other two territories have been infected by community spread, and actions are being taken to protect vulnerable Indigenous communities, including 24-hour surveillance at the entrances to their territories.
Last week, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart asked the province for $200-million in emergency financial assistance. More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in March, and the situation looks grimmer for April. The figure was double what some economists were predicting and ten times greater than job losses back in the last recession. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the numbers are only going to get worse. Some businesses forced to shut down in the social distancing effort may never come back. Those that do may look a whole lot different.
Tele-work is now the new normal and will become the wave of the future. The availability of easy-to-use internet connectors like Zoom is making it much easier to do distance business. Telemedicine is booming and mental health problems prompted by social isolation are being treated by distance clinicians.
The crisis has also opened the door to gougers. For some bizarre reason, the Canadian Transportation Agency is actually assisting the gougers.
It announced last week that airlines do not have to offer full refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled because of COVID-19. Under European and American rules, airlines must offer complete refunds, but Canadians are only entitled to credits.
Even where refunds are forthcoming, the differential in payout is amazing. Cathay Pacific offers a full refund within seven days to Americans whose flights were cancelled. Canadians who faced the same cancellation are expected to wait up to 45 days.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau must step in to reverse the position of the Canadian Transportation Agency. There is no way that airline companies should be keeping Canadians’ money for a service which was not delivered.
Garneau will be flooded with complaints from the millions of travellers who were ordered home by the government. They had to purchase high-priced emergency tickets to do so, and then discover there are no refunds for flights that did not happen. Why should Europeans and Americans get full refunds while the same air carriers sting Canadians by offering only airline credits?
Travelling seniors are most affected by that policy. They have already been hit hard with a 30 to 40 per cent drop in retirement investments. They should not be further punished by their own government’s airline credit policy.
The Canadian government is working overtime. But there is much more work to do.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.