It’s been one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and Canada is just beginning to understand how the coronavirus has changed the country in ways that could be short lived and in others that could affect us for years to come.
Here are five graphs, along with expert commentary, that help to assess COVID-19’s impact in Canada, from the amount we travel, to our shopping patterns, to what cities we live in.
Younger workers, especially those between the ages of 15 and 24, continue to struggle to regain ground since the first shutdown in March 2020.
Gordon Betcherman, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa and expert in Canadian labour markets, said that stems in part from the kind of work done by young people — many have precarious jobs in the hospitality and retail sector.
“Certainly what the pandemic has shown us is how important a lot of these jobs are,” he said.
The current underemployment of younger people, especially if it continues for a good part of 2021, may end up having life-long consequences.
“There’s a longer term concern about whether it’s going to get in the way or at the very least, slow down career building,” he said.
Betcherman thinks governments should respond by making it easier for Canadians, even those with traditional education, to upgrade their skills and find higher paying, more stable jobs.
Travel plans stalled
Air travel looked completely different during the pandemic compared to the previous year. All types of flights — domestic and international flights, including those to and from the United States — fell dramatically in March 2020 and continued to flounder throughout the year, although less so for flights within Canada.
Karl Moore, an airline analyst and associate professor at McGill University, said the lack of international travel was likely one of the factors that led to a moderate rise in domestic air travel in Canada last summer.
Canadians desperate to get away looked at domestic destinations to get their travel fix, he said. Moore anticipates once restrictions on international air travel are lifted, tourists will be more than happy to get back on planes — but still he thinks the recovery for airlines will be “mixed.”
“When we’re allowed to travel again I think you’ll see a bump up of leisure travel, but business travel is probably going to be down,” he said, because people likely won’t fly somewhere for a two-hour meeting and instead, “we’ll Zoom.”
Moore anticipates it will take three to four years before the airline industry comes close to the number of travellers it served before the pandemic.
Shopping patterns shift
For retailers, the pandemic has brought historic volatility to the sector unlike anything seen before, including past pandemics and recessions, said Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada.
“We’ve never lived through anything like this. There’s no playbook,” she said.
Some of the worst hit retailers are those that sell clothing and accessories, Brisebois said, particularly those that sell clothes for events like weddings.
“Those retailers were hit not only during the lockdowns but pretty much throughout the pandemic.”
To no one’s surprise, food and beverage retailers, a category that includes grocery and liquor stores, not restaurants and bars, did extremely well during the pandemic, especially in March.
Brisebois noted some decline among grocery stores over the summer as people shifted their food budgets to patios and restaurants, but mostly, she said, stores held onto more customers, in part due to efforts to adapt to the pandemic — like offering curbside pickup and more prepared meals.
Overall, the retail sector is “cautiously optimistic” about 2021, said Brisebois. She noted that there’s a belief that pent up consumer demand over the course of 2020 will result in increased spending going forward.
ICUs bombarded as COVID-19 spread
Data collected from hospitals across the country show how intensive care unit (ICU) admissions mirrored, and even helped predict, waves of COVID-19.
While COVID-19 patients only made up a fraction of overall hospital visits, Tracy Johnson, director of health system analytics with the Canadian Institute for Health Information, said nevertheless the virus dramatically changed hospital protocols, for example, the increased use of personal protective equipment.
“Donning and doffing that every time you come in and out of a patient’s room is very difficult to do and it’s very stressful and it adds time to everything,” she said. “COVID patients also put a stress on the system because they stay longer.”
The early data also shows that overall emergency department (ED) visits dropped, especially over the spring and early summer, she said.
“We are still not back to the same kinds of ED volumes that we had prior to the pandemic,” said Johnson.
There’s an ongoing concern that people experiencing pain or other troubling symptoms, which could be related to a serious, undiagnosed condition like cancer, may not be seeking care and Johnson said the repercussions of that could affect Canada’s health-care system for years to come.
Home prices rise despite economic uncertainty
Aled ab Iorwerth, deputy chief economist with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, said the strength of the Canadian housing market came as a surprise for the Crown corporation, which predicted a decline of up to 18 per cent in home prices due to the pandemic.
“Last year we were very concerned about how the pandemic would affect the housing market, particularly given the levels of debt that there is in Canada,” he said.
“That housing prices are going up is a sign that the economy is holding its own.”
It’s clear now that many in Canada are taking advantage of low interest rates to purchase homes but are also choosing to relocate from cities like Toronto to less expensive markets, including rural areas and smaller cities like Ottawa or Halifax, he said. That’s been reflected in recent sharp price increases in those markets.
While the market seems to be holding its own now, ab Iorwerth said there are storm clouds in the distance, which could lead to a price drop.
Those worries include rising household debts, the potential for rising interest rates, a widening income gap and the possibility that employers will recall workers to the office, leading to a sell off in housing markets outside big cities.
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