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Associations, Economic

Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Why the WHO just might have it right on the COVID conundrum

Paul de Jong
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Why the WHO just might have it right on the COVID conundrum

Just as COVID-19’s second wave threatens to stall Canada’s economic recovery comes the voice of reason from an unlikely source. The World Health Organization (WHO), which initially urged countries not to be hasty in lifting their lockdowns, has given its message a deep massage. It’s now advising against tighter restrictions that hurt the economy. This sensible advice has resonated all along with Western Canada’s construction industry. It’s an industry that’s demonstrated throughout the pandemic that the WHO’s new stance makes sense.

Call it the COVID conundrum. From the get-go, elected officials have been in the unenviable position of having to weigh shifting science and economics; hoping they’ve struck the right balance to protect both human health and the economy.

Just recently, the WHO offered some practical guidance, suggesting that restrictive measures should not be the go-to strategy, but a last resort: “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it,” said WHO envoy Dr. David Nabarro.

As decisions were made to slow the virus by shutting down huge swaths of Canada’s economy earlier this year, the construction industry worked hard to convince the premiers of Canada’s western provinces to do just the opposite; allow essential construction workers who maintain and improve critical infrastructure from highways to energy plants and hospitals to keep working, and working safely. They agreed.

“We cannot afford to lose a day when we need this money spent on the economy now,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney explained back in April. And today, his determination to keep industry up and running, is stronger than ever.

“We want to do everything we possibly can to avoid jerking around people, indiscriminately shutting down their businesses, their jobs and their livelihoods,” Kenney said.

Don’t get me wrong. For construction companies and their workers, it has not been business as usual. In order to social distance, that’s meant smaller construction crews and more shifts at some worksites; lunchroom rotations and more bus trips carrying fewer workers to work camps.

Tools are sanitized, hand wash stations and larger accommodations built at remote sites to allow workers to follow health and safety protocols. But through these difficult “COVID-times” construction firms and their workers have demonstrated their commitment to protecting public health by taking all necessary precautions.

And it’s worked. That’s not to say no workers have contracted COVID-19. Some have. But by following the practical advice of public health officials, the construction industry as a whole has been able to strike that tricky balance, operate safely and play a leading role in keeping Canada’s economy moving through the worst economic decline of our time.

Member companies of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) have been allowed to keep building the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project and do it safely, making worker protection a priority. It’s meant that 5,600 workers have been able to keep bringing home paycheques to support their families and communities along the project’s 1,100-kilometre route. And that’s brought major benefits to communities, to families and to a general population struggling with heightened anxiety, rates of depression, and the health risks that accompany them. These are all very real consequences of the pandemic, as Dr. Nabarro points out.

Our member companies are also keeping thousands of workers safely employed building Calgary’s Cancer Centre and Southwest Ring Road as well as the Coastal Gas Link and LNG Canada projects, both in Northern B.C.

In July, the construction industry was the third largest contributor to Canada’s GDP, contributing more than $140 billion and employing well over 1.3 million Canadians. It’s an industry that’s been allowed to keep driving Canada’s economy, providing purpose and at the same time protecting both public health and livelihoods.

The WHO has urged countries to bolster other measures like contact tracing and more testing so that lockdowns can be avoided. As regions come under increasing pressure to impose further restrictions to curb COVID-19, construction is an industry that’s proven the WHO’s common sense approach to protecting public health and the economy actually works.  

 

Paul de Jong is president of the PCA. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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