Context is everything and trade-offs exist with COVID-19

Likely the most prominent question on most farmers’ minds is, “what impact will COVID-19 have on my farm business?”

With so many unknowns, the impacts will be immediate and multifaceted, yet also long-standing from an economic, environmental, and social perspective.

The largest mobilization since the Second World War prompts important questions. What unaccounted for positive and negative externalities will come of this, and what does the cost-benefit analysis say?

Current government support has been targeted to address the needs of Canadians in the short term, and governments would be foolish to consider anything other than impromptu emergency payments. Long-term policies would be futile at this point.

But with all of these payouts, some are left wondering, will we pay now or later? And will the financial debt be more detrimental than the psychological impacts?

COVID-19 has demonstrated the high value modern governments and societies place on human life. Arguably, with the economy shut and job loss increasing daily, some Canadians will struggle to put food on the table.

Some countries are getting it right. South Korea, for example performed more than 340,000 tests by March 20 resulting in a fatality rate of only 1.3 percent, in stark contrast to the global average of 4.3 percent, as calculated by the World Health Organization.

With an increase in the number of tests conducted, fatality rates decrease because milder cases are detected and monitored. South Korea and Taiwan have had one of the most successful pandemic responses, where tests were conducted among the mass population, as opposed to strict quarantine measures.

Italy’s approach has been far less effective as it became the country with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world in March. But there are additional factors that make this country unique in a pandemic situation.

The country has the oldest population of any European country. For comparison sake, the population density in Italy is more than 17 times greater than Canada. As well, mobilizing resources proved more challenging for Italy because public trust for government authority is generally low.

Testing for COVID-19 seems to be inconsistent and somewhat inaccurate across jurisdictions. Early tests in China resulted in one medical journal indicating that eight in 10 people who tested positive for COVID-19 were not actually infected. Further, the efficacy of testing methods was estimated to be only 40 percent in February. Accuracy has likely improved as research and practices are improving, but there is a cost associated with inaccurate testing measures.

There are some surprising positive externalities of Covid-19 thus far. Marshall Burke, an environmental economist at Stanford University cites images from NASA showing a reduction in air pollution and improvements in air quality.

Burke predicts there may actually be a reduction in mortality, in the order of tens of thousands, due to a reduction in particulate air pollution, a factor that is responsible for many respiratory related fatalities. In the United Kingdom, death rates were statistically lower in March than in previous months due an improvement in air quality.

From a mental health perspective, COVID-19 is proving to be challenging. Prior to this pandemic, North America was experiencing a loneliness epidemic and recommendations to social distance or isolate won’t help.

In England, mental health services were unable to be accessed due to social distancing protocols.

In the name of public health and safety, what aspects of health and safety might we be sacrificing? Alcohol consumption was up by 55 percent in the United States and some research indicates that children exposed to disinfectant products at a young age may experience comprised health conditions later.

As well, we are no longer concerned about plastic bag use as many grocery stores have banned reusable bags. Contradictions and trade-offs are rampant.

The good news for farmers is that the 2020 growing season will commence as scheduled but likely with a few extra hiccups that aren’t weather related. The economy has proven resilient many times in history, and as suppliers of essential goods we have a significant role to play.

I continue to remain cautiously optimistic about the situation. COVID-19 is contagious, but so is fear and hysteria. In North America, depression is the leading cause of disability, and stress is linked to nearly every cause of fatality and reduced life expectancy. These factors must be carefully accounted for in the name of public safety.

Now, what’s important is to move more, connect more — safely— and weather the COVID-19 storm.

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