COVID-19 Makes the Case for GAI

The key word heard most since the COVID-19 virus took over our lives is “together” and, in the final analysis, if we don’t overcome this “together” by strictly following all the rules that have been set out for us by competent people who struggle to make us aware of just how dangerous the situation is, then “together”we will fail.

It’s is very hard to believe that fines and arrests had to be used for those who continued to hang out together in groups larger than five, who refused to keep a six-foot distance from others while shopping and who arrived home from vacations and assumed the orders to self-isolate for 14 days were never meant for them. It truly boggles the mind, the lack of thought such people gave to their neighbors, their friends and family members, and anyone else with whom they might have come in contact as they went about their merry business.

NS Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang

Premier Stephen McNeil and NS chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang look at photos of cars where they’re not supposed to be. 29 March 2020

Nobody can say that those in leadership roles have not been doing their utmost to make everyone aware of the risks involved in not accepting that life, right now, is nowhere close to normal, and that we must just get used to it! It strikes me as unbelievably thankless and selfish to ignore the rules when others are out there on the front lines doing all in their power to assist those who have fallen victim to the virus. If the worst thing we have to do is stay at home, surely we should stay at home and do our part “together” to “flatten the curve” and eliminate any more deaths.

I’ve actually been trying to come up with something good that might come from our recent situation, and the amount of money that has been spent to assist those in financial need by our federal and provincial governments has to be, as Martha would say, “a good thing.” This major spending to assist those who find themselves in financial difficulties — let’s face it, those who are struggling to feed their families and pay their rent — tells me that such financial assistance could easily be made available year-round for those below the poverty line. And we all know that Nova Scotia has a huge number of citizens who fall into this category.

I know the term “child poverty” has a sadness about it that probably makes people sit up and take notice, but I prefer the term “family poverty,” since children don’t live in isolation (oops, except for now maybe), and when those on assistance have to sort out every month how they are going to pay rent, buy food and provide the necessities that most of us take for granted, it’s simply not right that many have to depend on the kindness of others to survive from day to day. The answer? A guaranteed annual income (GAI) or basic income (BI)


Admittedly, I have been harping on the topic of a GAI/BI for quite a long time, since January of 2017 to be exact, having written (and yes I went back and counted them) 13 columns with regard to poverty and the effects it has on a large part of our population. When the most recent report on poverty in our province was released, there were four writers who took the time to write about it in our daily paper, and to suggest possible solutions for the situation which, by the way, has been a major concern for many who, in so many ways, attempt to assist those who truly need financial assistance year round.

Not one of those writers mentioned a GAI, and it truly bothers me that putting cash money in the hands of those living in poverty is not a suggestion that occurred to them. There seems still to be a certain stigma attached to being poor, a suggestion that those without money are not capable of handling it wisely. It strikes me that they are very good at handling it when they survive, although barely, on what provincial assistance offers them

John Whalley, former CBRM economic development manager, on the other hand, in a 4 March 2020 letter to the Cape Breton Post, reiterated the facts with which many of us have become sadly familiar, namely that in 2018, (once again) Nova Scotia had the “highest percentage of its population living in poverty” (13.3%) which adds up to “an estimated 124,000 individuals” His solution, along with that of Hugh Segal, Bob Rae, Gwynne Dyer, Rutger Bregman, (whose book Utopia For Realists I referenced in a January column) and many others all agree that a basic annual income would change the lives of the 124,000 living in poverty in our province — and those in every province. Paid out to every citizen, clawed back from those not in need, it could change the lives of the poor forever. The Canada Child Tax Credit, another “good thing,” must surely be a Godsend to those receiving it monthly, and no doubt makes their monthly financial situation just that much more secure.

It has been almost 30 years — since 24 November 1989 to be exact — since Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, with all-party support in the Commons, passed a resolution to “rid Canada of poverty by 2000, and as good a resolution as it was, it didn’t happen in Chretien’s time in office and it hasn’t happened since. In fact, although the Liberals actually discussed a basic income at their 2015 convention, other than the Canada Child Tax Credit, nothing has been done to make that 30-year-old resolution a reality. But now that we are able to see just how much money can be made available for all the different aspects of the national economy when we are faced with a horrendous problem like COVID-19, a GAI suddenly becomes a doable undertaking.

Former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has been beating the drum for a GAI for 20 years and was responsible for the plan put in place by then-Premier Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, only to see it dropped like a hot potato when the Tories came into power. Segal, has written a book Boot Straps Must Have Boots, in which he recalls his own upbringing in a Montreal family who lived through poverty without benefit of universal healthcare, guaranteed income supplements for seniors, or Child Tax Credit checks. Of a Sunday evening, he remembers his parents making piles of their bills on the kitchen table and his father saying “Pick two piles and they’ll get paid this week.”As Segal and others have pointed out, poverty is not a lack of initiative or character, but “a lack of enough money for food and housing.”

The cost of a GAI which could pay each individual $22,000 and a couple $31,000 per year has been estimated by the Basic Income Canada Network at $600 billion, a figure wildly larger than what Segal insists it would be, based on a 2016 report from The Parliamentary Budget Office — especially given that other programs now in existence would not be needed. He says a more realistic figure would be $25 billion and that polls taken fairly regularly by various pollsters indicate that 73-74% of Canadians are in favor of it. Provincial assistance payments, according to Segal “don’t pay more than 40 or 50% of the poverty rate in Canada, while a GAI would bring that percentage up to 75%.”


Journalist Gwynne Dyer believes that:

Covid-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time.

He believes that the clean air which both China and India have experienced during the pandemic will not be forgotten by citizens of both countries and they “will want something done about it when the filthy air comes back.” He also thinks that online shopping will become more popular, there will probably be fewer restaurants given the popularity of food delivery and take-away. Working from home will be considered “normal,” lowering greenhouse- gas emissions and creating lots of empty office-space downtown.

Most importantly, I believe, he says:

What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. ‘Austerity’ – cutting back on the welfare state to ‘balance the budget’ – is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.

Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a Universal Basic Income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.

And he goes further:

Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the Plague ends.

Apparently, even The Financial Times is taking a hard look at the benefits of a GAI these days. Things are definitely looking up, according to Rutger Bregman, whom the Guardian believes “has a big future shaping the future.”

While Carolyn Whitzman, Visiting Professor, Urban Planning at the University of Ottawa, in an article for The Conversation, makes us aware of the short-comings of many of our country’s “caring infrastructure” programs that have proven to be less influential in assisting those in need than we like to believe. She suggests that “longer -term measures,” once we have survived the pandemic, should include a “continued universal basic income for low-income households,” along with other pertinent programs to provide low-rental housing, etc. But it will involve “rebuilding together.”

Paul Rogers, Global Security Consultant with the Oxford Research Group, who was interviewed on CBC’s Sunday Edition by Michael Enright on March 29, believes there is a lack of cooperation among nations at this point in time, but rather “a rise of populism” that “in one way or another, is about making individual countries great again,” (Hmm, where have we heard that?) which militates against “effective, cooperative action.”  The world, as it is, according to Rogers, “can’t afford to be the same again after COVID-19.”


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.