Locking down again is not an option: Rob Wildeboer for Inside Policy

In dealing with a crisis, we need the correct facts, we need to do a rational cost-benefit analysis, and we need to understand and work through our biases, to make proper policy and achieve the best result for all, writes Rob Wildeboer.

By Rob Wildeboer, August 4, 2020

With much of Canada successfully opening up following this spring’s pandemic lockdown, it is absolutely vital now that we do not repeat the lockdown experience of recent months.

Politicians need to be firm in stating that a repeat of a full lockdown is not an option. And the media need to demonstrate a sense of perspective in reporting on “surges” of cases in Canada that in fact number in the few dozens or hundreds daily in a country of 38 million people, while hospitalizations and deaths continue to dwindle.

As a leader of a major global manufacturing business, I can speak directly to the social and human cost, and the economic cost, of lockdown measures. I can also tell you that many brilliant and innovative people in private industry are working to keep employees safe, and are succeeding.

As the lockdown eases, we are bound to see some rise in confirmed cases. To believe otherwise would be delusional.  We must work to limit hospitalizations and deaths. Of course, we don’t want a situation like we are seeing in some parts of the world with the spread of COVID-19 largely uncontrolled.  But even in those places there is a view, quite rational, that the costs of a broad lockdown — not just economic but from a health and social perspective — exceed the benefits.

In Canada we can do better, I believe.  With several weeks of experience in Canada and only manageable new outbreaks to this point, we are seeing that a good deal of commercial activity can be conducted safely.

Ontario, actually, has opened up pretty well (with some exceptions), and the vulnerable are now being better protected (basically by protecting themselves and by common courtesy on social distancing with regard to the vulnerable).  We have a better focus on nursing homes and long term care facilities.  And, for the most part, people learn behaviours on how not to spread the disease to vulnerable people.  People are practising social distancing and using protocols better than ever.

I am concerned about the role of the federal government which has been, in my view, too much an obstacle to getting beyond lockdowns both with its supremely cautious rhetoric and continued threats of new lockdowns, and by using its spending power and control of borders to hold back a number of the provinces.

The politics of fear, revved up by a willing media, have spooked a lot of people, especially those who are not facing economic and some of the other hardships that many in the private sector are enduring. But we are getting over that, slowly, as we learn as a society to live with the pandemic.  Note that I am not just a government basher — the federal government has done good things too — we also have appreciated EI and other government support programs as a temporary (and they need to be temporary) measure to alleviate the economic cost of lockdown.

My industry, automotive, as an essential service, has been able to operate since the lockdown began.  However, we did shut down for over two months because of safety concerns and economic lockdown, and then worked very hard to successfully reopen, with some of the leading workplace safety protocols in the world.  We have been successful, and my company is just one of many examples of how people can work in relative safety during a pandemic.

I am not a social scientist or an expert in psychology, or an economist. But I have sure been focused on COVID-19, and was privileged to co-chair the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council Task Force on COVID-19, working with car companies, auto parts suppliers, dealers, unions, and governments.  It was our job to figure out how to restart our industry, safely, by developing safety protocols that worked, putting our people back to work, and helping to get the economy moving again.  We have been pretty successful.  Indeed, as we sit here in mid summer, the ramp up of the auto industry is one of North America’s good news stories, both economically and socially.  I do believe that one of the best social policies in our world is to give someone meaningful work.

And this is personal for me.  I am privileged to be a leader in a great company whose vision is to make people’s lives better by being the best we can be in the products we make and the services we provide. That means that at the top of the list is a mission to take care of our people, and their loved ones, and our communities. Safety comes first. We have over 15,000 wonderful people working for our company, in nine countries on five continents, and people who have experienced the COVID-19 crisis first in China, but then also in Germany, Spain, Slovakia, Brazil, Mexico, the US and Canada.

Since this crisis has started, we have been extremely active in safety measures, including social distancing, people working from home and so forth.  We have plants in China so by the time the virus came to Europe and North America, we had some good experience.

We have had people, or their loved ones, contract the COVID-19 virus.  Most of our plants are located in countries with more COVID-19 cases than Canada.  Two members of our extended family, in Mexico, sadly have died with COVID-19, and our hearts go out to them and their families.  Some of our people have tested positive for the virus over the past six months, and have recovered or are recovering, thankfully.  There are undoubtedly more that have been exposed to the virus, as the positive case figures certainly understate the true number of exposures. To our best knowledge, our people are not contracting the virus at work — which, as some have described it to me, is the safest place for them to be in the time of a pandemic.

Our people have remained upbeat, positive and frankly very mature about the virus. People are smart, and they know how to deal with things. I am very proud of our team.  Some of the most heartwarming stories for Martinrea relate to our success in making ventilator stands and masks in house to help fight the pandemic, despite no previous experience in making these things.

A generalized lockdown is a blunt tool which may have been necessary in March and April as a last resort once the virus began to spread globally at a furious rate. It is legitimate to “stop the surge” or “flatten the curve” to ensure our health care system doesn’t get hopelessly overloaded. But we did that.

Looking back, it is likely that the virus was not nearly as deadly as originally feared, and affected different populations in different regions in different ways. As Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis put it in a recent interview, “in our approach to controlling coronavirus we made no distinction between teenagers partying on beaches in Florida and debilitated, frail residents living in congested nursing homes in NYC. Our uniform approach was neither scientific nor safe.”  Bang on.  We cannot change the past, and frankly a lot of people meant well.  But we have to learn from the past, and not repeat the mistakes.

Meanwhile, the economic damage was staggering. The US GDP in the second quarter was down a third.  Tens of millions out of work. In Canada we have fared somewhat better, but the numbers are still once in a lifetime awful. And we are not out of this economic crisis yet.  With our now trillion dollar government debt in Canada, we will be paying for it in lower economic growth and higher taxes for a long time. That too has bad social and health implications.

In dealing with a crisis, we need the correct facts, we need to do a rational cost-benefit analysis, and we need to understand and work through our biases, to make proper policy and achieve the best result for all.  I wrote that in a published commentary four months ago. I believe this is still true.  I believe we have better facts today, but it is clear to me that many overestimated the costs of the pandemic and underestimated the costs of a broad lockdown.  We should have and could have done better.  This is not a criticism of well-meaning people.  But, simply stated, we need to do better going forward.

We need to fight the pandemic appropriately with social distancing practices as a new way of life; we need to continue to use measures to alleviate the strains, current or coming, to our limited health care resources; we need to use those health care systems to deal with the health concerns that have taken a back seat in lockdown, like elective surgeries, mental health, cancer treatments and so forth; we need governments to provide leadership to fight the disease, to support the financial system and economy, to alleviate the pain of economic disruption; and we need to get the economy moving again and keep the economy moving to help prevent the economic and social tragedies that will continue if we don’t. People need to work; they need to be productive to take care of themselves and their families, and that too is great social policy.

Don’t lockdown again.  Please.

Rob Wildeboer is the Executive Chairman and co-founder of Martinrea International Inc., a global auto parts supplier, specializing in automotive fluid systems and metal forming products. He is former chairman of the board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.