June 15, 2021

Virtual forum June 18 addresses safeguarding lives and livelihoods during COVID-19 and beyond

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, business leaders and scholars will explore relationship between health and economy
Naheed Nenshi
Mayor Naheed Nenshi, pictured at an O’Brien Institute for Public Health event on March 6, 2020.

While foremost a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also locked down economies — creating wide-ranging economic disruptions in countries around the world.

A panel featuring Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, business leaders and leading national scholars will convene on June 18 at a virtual forum hosted by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), with support from the Haskayne School of Business, to discuss the path forward for public health and the economy, as Canada rounds a corner in the fight against COVID-19.

Health is critical to the prosperity of any society, says Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, O’Brien Institute scientific director.

“Public health and the economy are intertwined — you cannot have one without the other,” says Stelfox.

A healthy economy requires a healthy population, and a healthy population requires a healthy economy.

From the early stages in the pandemic, countries faced a dilemma of how to safeguard the health of their citizens while protecting the economy from physical distancing and lockdown mandates that disrupted economies around the globe.

Measures used to slow the spread of the virus, such as self-isolation by workers and consumers, closure of factories and retail, and bans on sports and entertainment activities, all take a toll on the economy, says Stelfox.

However, the notion that leaders must choose between health measures and the economy is not supported by evidence, he says.

“It appears that those jurisdictions that have most successfully managed the health consequences of COVID-19 have also managed to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the economy.”

For public health to prosper, there is a clear need to protect both lives and livelihoods, says Dr. Jim Dewald, dean, Haskayne School of Business.

“The economy generates the funds to pay for our health system to run, including wages for health professionals and equipment for health research and medical treatments. In the short term, governments can borrow to fill a gap, but there are long-term negative consequences to piling up debt, just like running a household on debt,” he says.

Ideally, policy-makers will seek ways to both safeguard the economy and the health of the public, says Dewald.

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including mass layoffs and economic uncertainty, is felt most strongly by the least advantaged, says economist Dr. Trevor Tombe, PhD, who will speak at the June 18 forum.

The pandemic has shone a light on the need to modernize supports for individuals and families such as income support programs, says Tombe, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Calgary.

“During the pandemic, governments moved quickly to provide support, but did so in an ad-hoc manner. We can design supports better to provide short-term income help when needed, but also must ensure we have the economic and social infrastructure to ensure Canadians can weather shocks like this better,” he says.  

Economic disruptions have also led to fiscal challenges, which are especially acute in Alberta, says Tombe.

“Thinking about long-run resilience in government budgeting is not something that we do very well. Albertans and Canadians will need to consider carefully how we can better prepare for the inevitable future shocks we'll face,” he says.

To be better prepared for the next pandemic it will be important to learn lessons from the current COVID-19 crisis, says Stelfox.

“The pandemic has further confirmed the close relationship between the nation’s economy and public health. When we impact one we impact the other,” says Stelfox. “It is essential that we find innovative ways to keep both our population and economy healthy as we look towards the future.”

Along with Tombe and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the June 18 forum will feature Dr. Esyllt Jones, PhD, dean of Studies at St John’s College and author of Influenza 1918: Disease, Death and Struggle in Winnipeg, and Tracy Robinson, executive vice-president, president Canadian Natural Gas Pipelines and president Coastal GasLink.

Register for Anatomy of a Pandemic: Health vs. Economy? How we leave COVID-19 behind, June 18, noon to 1 p.m. here