Jock Finlayson, Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer of the Business Council of British Columbia (submitted)

FINLAYSON: The long economic tail of COVID-19

‘Fast forward to late 2020 and the situation has partially stabilized’

As excitement builds over the imminent arrival of one or more vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19, it is worth reflecting on some of the longer-lasting economic consequences that are likely to follow from the 2020 pandemic.

For most people, it’s a safe bet that 2020 will rank as a year like no other. In B.C., we saw the sudden disappearance of more than 400,000 jobs from late February though mid-April.

Multiple tens of thousands of businesses were temporarily shuttered and hundreds of thousands of employees – and students — across the province were advised to work or study from home.

Travel and tourism came to a screeching halt. And in short order, governments arrived on the scene with giant checkbooks, deploying unheard of sums of money to support displaced workers, struggling businesses and many others whose lives were being affected by the fast-spreading virus.

Fast forward to late 2020 and the situation has partially stabilized. The dreaded “second wave” is fully upon us, but the economy hasn’t shut down and business conditions have improved across most sectors. Remarkably, employment has rebounded sharply since April, with the number of jobs in B.C. down “just” 37,000 (1.5 per cent) compared to February.

In some industries, including manufacturing, natural resources and professional, scientific and technical services, employment has actually risen above the levels reported before COVID-19 crashed onto our shores in early 2020.

At the same time, global trade has revived after a dramatic drop in the spring, providing some welcome support to B.C. exporters. Housing markets have turned red hot in most regions of the province, while retail sales have fully recovered from earlier, virus-related declines.

Equity markets are at record highs and interest rates and borrowing costs are hovering near record lows. The aggregate household savings rate in Canada has surged, in part due to massive government fiscal injections, but also because many households are spending less on travel, restaurants and some other services.

Overall, then, the state of the economy is considerably better than several months ago, even though the virus itself has not disappeared. But the economic ramifications of the pandemic will be with us for many months and probably years to come, even if vaccines succeed in eradicating COVID-19.

For one thing, some sectors are expected to face a notably slow recovery process. This is especially true of tourism and travel-related businesses, where it will take a long time to return to 2019 levels of activity. Some segments of the retail sector are likely to shrink as household spending increasingly shifts to on-line channels and many stores and shopping malls adjust to fundamental changes in technology and consumer preferences. The restaurant and foodservices industry – a big employer in B.C. — may be pinched by a greater propensity for in-home dining in the wake of the virus.

The public sector will also experience lasting effects. Most importantly, governments carrying much larger debt burdens will find they have less scope to contend with future economic downturns. They will also be under pressure to ratchet down discretionary expenditures and/or to hike taxes and fees in the medium term, in order to help service ballooning debts. Many educational institutions and health care providers will make more use of the digital tools and platforms that became indispensable in 2020. .

Finally, the spatial organization of many kinds of work – especially “white collar” jobs – is expected to move away from offices and other central locations, as large numbers of people and organizations have become comfortable with working from home. This trend is apt to persist. Three major Canadian banks recently announced that they plan to keep most of their staff working remotely well into next year.

Many large and mid-sized businesses are actively re-evaluating their need for (expensive) downtown office space in a world where a sizable fraction of their workforces can be productive while staying home much or all of the time.

Certainly, some of the mostly empty offices that dominate the downtown cores of Vancouver and Victoria will spring partly back to life once COVID-19 is gone. But less vibrant downtown business and office districts may end up being one of the most visible economic legacies of the global pandemic.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

North Cowichan councillor Kate Marsh. (File photo)
North Cowichan postpones decision on cell tower placement

But cell tower policy may be developed soon

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks at a press conference Monday, April 18. (B.C. Government image)
New COVID-19 cases tick down on the central Island

New cases held to single digits three days in a row

CVRD offices on Ingram Street will remain closed for another 14 weeks after flooding last month. (File photo)
CVRD headquarters closed for another three and a half months

Building significantly damaged during water leak

Victoria police are asking for help locating high-risk missing man Derek Whittaker, last seen in Victoria April 12. (Courtesy of VicPD)
MISSING: Police searching for Derek Whittaker, last seen in Victoria

Whittaker believed to be driving 1994 red Volkswagen Golf

The IIO is investigating after a police dog bit a man during a traffic stop near Ladysmith on April 17, 2021. (Black Press Media stock photo)
IIO investigating after police dog bites man near Ladysmith

RCMP dog bit man during traffic stop on Friday, April 17

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

Paramedic Matthew Schlatter of Victoria is living a fuller life today due to the double lung transplant he received in 2019. He encourages B.C. residents to register as an organ donor and let their families know their wishes. (Instagram/Matthew Schlatter)
B.C. man living a full, active life after double-lung transplant

Matt Schlatter encourages people to register as an organ donor to help others live

(Photo by Mojpe/Pixabay)
Canadian kids extracting record amounts from Tooth Fairy

Our neighbours in the U.S. receive slightly less from Tooth Fairy visits

Families of two of three workers killed in a train derailment near Field, B.C., in 2019 have filed lawsuits accusing Canadian Pacific of gross negligence. The derailment sent 99 grain cars and two locomotives off the tracks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Families of workers killed in Field train derailment allege negligence in lawsuit

Lawsuits allege the workers weren’t provided a safe work environment

(New Westminster Police)
4 youth arrested after 30-person brawl in New Westminster leaves 1 seriously injured

Police are looking for witnesses who saw the incident take place

Most Read