TORONTO — The two-pronged battle to contain the spread of COVID-19 while inoculating the economy from the drastic fallout of the pandemic saw governments on Tuesday rush to try to ease concerns of hardship even as they tightened restrictions on people and businesses.
With large swaths of normal life grinding to a halt, the federal government was expected to pass emergency legislation aimed at allowing for $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes.
Speaking from outside his home in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged people need direct financial help and need it quickly as a result of what he called the “biggest health crisis our country has ever seen.”
“The demand is massive across the country,” said Trudeau, who promised further information later in the day.
The Opposition Conservatives have said they will support measures to help Canadians, but would not grant a “blank cheque” to the Liberal government.
The Canadian government, as is happening around the world, is hoping that a massive injection of money will help douse the flames of a financial fire. A statement from G7 finance ministers and central bankers said the group would do “whatever is necessary” to restore economic confidence and protect jobs and businesses.
The statement said countries affected by COVID-19 should increase spending and support financial institutions to mitigate the shock from the pandemic.
Trudeau said it was impossible to say how long emergency measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus would need to stay in place. He warned of “much more stringent measures” if people don’t voluntarily heed urgent pleas to self-isolate as health authorities have been urging.
“The duration of this crisis will be determined by the choices we make right now,” Trudeau said. “Do your part: Stay home.”
The prime minister said one million people returned to Canada this past week even as he announced further flights to repatriate Canadians stranded abroad.
States of emergency are now in effect across Canada. Ontario and Quebec announced the complete closure of non-essential businesses and services as of midnight tonight. The two provinces were also considering closing their borders to each other. The mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., across the river have asked residents to limit interprovincial travel between the two cities.
To help cushion the financial fallout, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was expected to announce a cut in electricity rates given the large numbers of people now working from home. A senior government source said the lower rates would be in place for the next 45 days and be achieved by switching current all time-of-use pricing to off-peak rates.
The mayors of Ontario’s 29 largest cities called in a statement for a “shared and multifaceted fiscal response” to the crisis.
The various measures come as the number of COVID-related fatalities in Canada reached 24 and the total case-load passed 2,000.
Public health authorities say some people infected with the highly contagious COVID-19 virus may have no symptoms, while most experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Most recover. However, for Canadians over 65 or with less than optimal health, the respiratory illness can be lethal.
To prevent its spread, experts advise frequent hand-washing and, crucially, avoiding any close contact with others. The result has been an almost complete shutdown of places where people normally gather — schools, places of worship, restaurants and sports venues.
The Tokyo Olympics became the latest major sports event to fall casualty to COVID-19, with the International Olympic Committee postponing the Games until 2021 at the urging of Japan’s prime minister. Canada had already said it would not participate, becoming the first country to take that position.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press