Health for wealth: a politics whose time has come

We need to get out of the Steam Age mentality

We had a great deal of fun putting a technological cone of shame around Premier Doug Ford’s head for not knowing how to use a laptop and running the biggest province in a G-7 country with a stash of discontinued burner phones. But there are serious issues at stake.

First, I hope staffers in the premier’s office who had to self-isolate are well. I also hope they take time to reflect on the benefit of having a safety net under one’s feet in times of unexpected trouble – including paid sick leave and dedicated staff willing to assist with basic necessities like how to turn on the internet. We can’t all repair to our family’s estate when we need to spend time away from others to prevent contagion, but at least we shouldn’t be forced to go to work sick. I think just maybe Ford will understand that now?

But the biggest issue we’ve been dealing with all this time is not the fact that a 56-year-old wealthy white man does not know how to use computers. The real problem is that he – and so many in positions of power and authority – are stuck in economic theories from the 18th century that put employers ahead of the very people who make their business success possible.

The Industrial Revolution moved societies from agriculture to industry. There is no question it made people richer. Well, at least some people got very rich. People like Doug Ford tend to think that when those few people get rich, all of us benefit through the magic of trickle-down economics. Maybe if the premier had to find a way to self-isolate in a crowded apartment in the M9W postal code, he’d see that the magic is taking some time to manifest itself. That in fact trickle-down economics is only used by people at the top of the money pile to justify staying there. Nobody who works minimum wage believes in it.

This Steam Age thinking doesn’t work because it regards people’s work as essential but people themselves as expendable. The whole factory model is based on this, and you can see its modern incarnation today with apps that follow warehouse employees and track their work time down to the second. If you’re in a job where going to the bathroom costs you money, you are expendable.

What we need to do instead is focus on people first. In a pandemic especially, prioritizing health is sound economic theory. Just look at the countries or regions (New Zealand, Israel, the Atlantic bubble) where governments made those hard decisions either to impose strict measures while vaccines weren’t ready or to throw everything into a very aggressive vaccination campaign. They’re not just healthier than Ontario, they’re much happier economically too, with folks going about their lives in a way that – while not entirely “normal” – is a heck of a lot closer to it than our miserable, badly-enforced stay-at-home order that’s not doing much to help us avoid the catastrophic effects of an entirely predictable yet unprevented third wave.

In fact, by not prioritizing public health, by trying to avoid hurting “the economy,” the premier of Ontario caused devastating health and economic damage to all of us, but more particularly to the already marginalized. To use a figure of speech our computer-illiterate premier would not understand, the fact that it’s people in racialized, more vulnerable groups who are suffering the most from his handling of COVID-19 is not a bug. It’s a feature. It’s baked into the system.

Money is important, don’t get me wrong. So is “the economy”. But an economic system that eats people alive and spits out their bones like they were yesterday’s fish is not sustainable. Or fair, or even decent. Countries and regions that have put health and safety first are doing better economically than we are. If that’s not a rallying cry for the “Wealth through Health” movement, I don’t know what is.

We can make fun of a politician who can’t work a laptop. But his insistence on remaining in the Steam Age economy is a much bigger problem.

Writer | Ottawa. Books include Épître aux tartempions, Le national-syndicalisme, Down the Road Never Travelled, Not Just for Kicks and Le livre Uber.

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