Pandemic forcing big changes in Canada, not all of them bad

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The COVID-19 crisis has actually encouraged many cyberspace luddites to start using their computers instead of their cars to go shopping.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 13, 2020.

OTTAWA—The Paris runway just featured virtual models. The good news was that they looked a little heavier than usual because the camera has a tendency to add a few pounds. The bad news is that this may not be the only year for COVID haute couture.

With the unrelenting rise in Americans testing positive for the Coronavirus, we won’t be getting out of the COVID bubble any time soon. Masks have become a new fashion statement in Canada, while in the United States, they have taken the place of guns in the geopolitical divide marking that country.

The only difference between gun lovers and the growing number of anti-mask “freedom fighters” is that the latter cannot hide behind the constitution to defend their right to spread infection.

At the end of this COVID saga, Americans will have to look in the mirror and ask themselves why individual freedom is more important than collective safety in a pandemic.

One startling statistic should be all they need: as of last week, Americans suffered 24 per cent of global pandemic deaths with only four per cent of the world’s population. Why would a country as developed as the United States be unable to rally around a national pandemic strategy?

It may sound ridiculous, but President Donald Trump and his followers simply do not believe in collective responsibility. They are so enamoured of the notion that each American is responsible for his own Manifest Destiny, that they cannot fathom or support any measure that would restrict their individual choices. So, they ignore national health distancing guidelines, reopen economies too soon, and refuse to even don a simple mask as a gesture of concern and protection.

Someone should tell Trump that the mask is not for him. It is to ensure that he does not spread infected droplets to others. Why not use the mask as a tool in the fight to protect his citizens?

Instead, in our country, the wearing of masks has taken on a designer look. In his much-awaited fiscal update, finance minister Bill Morneau traded in the usual shoes for a wine-coloured COVID mask, complete with an understated Canadian maple leaf embroidered into the upper corner.

Many not-for profits are using masking as a fundraising opportunity. Canadian Geographic partnered with Roots to launch a reusable face mask last week. Within hours, it became the hottest selling item on their virtual store site.

As Canadians are becoming more comfortable with virtual journeys, their shopping habits are changing with them. Grocery chains have seen an unprecedented hike in online purchases. While retail giants are falling like dominoes across the economic landscape, Canadians are spending more online than ever before and there is no sign that trend will end in a post-COVID space. The savings attributed to virtual versus in-person shopping are enormous. It is no surprise that the list of the world’s billionaires is topped by people who got into the internet world early, like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Ma. The COVID crisis has actually encouraged many cyberspace luddites to start using their computers instead of their cars to go shopping. That change in consumer habits could have a long-term, positive impact on our environment, cutting down our transportation footprint, as people stop driving to do their shopping.

The same can be said for renewal of our neighbourhoods. With more Canadians COVID-ing outside, we are now using front porches in the way our grandparents intended, as a gathering place to enjoy the community.

Travel habits will also change. With the southern border still closed, and most air travel relatively limited, Canadians are being encouraged to take staycations by visiting sites within their own communities and provinces. That will not staunch the hemorrhaging of the airline industry, but it may help those tourism providers on the ground by encouraging the rental of motels and campsites.

It will also have the added benefit of encouraging Canadians to get to know their own country. You would be surprised how many of us have not been outside of our own province, preferring instead to vacation in warmer southern destinations or exotic European locations. I was at a cocktail party once with a well-travelled Montrealer, who knew every stop on the Paris subway line but had never taken his family to Toronto.

COVID-forced separation has also included a greater appreciation of the outdoors, because this is one place where we feel relatively safe. How ironic that a pandemic helps us rediscover Mother Nature!

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.