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Editorial: Coronavirus situation offers strange times

I’m sure most of us are feeling a sense of other-worldliness these days.

It’s like we’re suddenly at war, but against an unseen enemy.

The prime minister holds daily briefings outside his residence, while observing his own self-quarantine.

The U.S. border has slammed shut for weeks and possibly months to anything but essential traffic.

Domestic manufacturers are ramping up production of hand sanitizer, medical masks and vital medical equipment. Non-medical manufacturers, such as auto parts makers, are said to be volunteering their capacity to the federal government.

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In the meantime, it’s as though our society has gone into a voluntary lockdown. There’s little traffic on the streets. Malls and stores, other than those selling the essentials, are empty mausoleums to commerce.

Those employers who can, are rapidly moving as many of their employees as possible to working from home. Others, hit hard by the drop in traffic, are laying workers off very quickly and closing shop at least for now.

For all but our oldest citizens, this sort of thing is unprecedented. As Angela Merkel, German chancellor, noted in a recent speech, it is a societal challenge on a level not seen since the Second World War.

Already the situation is revealing many things. One is just how vulnerable many members of our society are to sudden shocks and disruptions to the usual order of things.

By now we’re all used to poll results with statements like “nearly half of Canadians say they’re $200 or less away from not being able to pay their bills.”

Until now that’s been largely academic. But with approximately half a million employment insurance applications flowing in over the past week, that’s clearly about to become an exercise in reality for too many of our fellow citizens.

It’s also revealing what many of us have known all along — that in many Canadians there abides a deep-seated sense of community. Stories abound of neighbours looking out for neighbours, strangers helping strangers.

While it might seem daunting now, there’s little doubt that, as a society, we will weather this storm. Eventually our social distancing and self-isolation efforts will have the intended effect, as it has already in other parts of the world harder hit than our own.

Chinese officials reported March 19 that for the first time since the pandemic began there, there were no new local cases. But that only came after several weeks of stringent isolation and near-lockdown conditions.

For readers on the farm, that isolation will be simpler than for most. When you’re a few miles from the nearest town, social distancing is a way of life.

And it appears that, at least for now, it’s largely going to be business as usual for the agriculture sector. There are some changes to cattle sales and doing business at the elevator will be a bit different. But grain will continue to flow to market, and barns will be staffed.

Looking a bit further ahead, it appears fuel, fertilizer and other inputs are going to be available for the next crop. As well, temporary workers will be available for those farms that need them.

What’s a bit less certain is where we’ll all be in the medium and long terms, once the immediate threat of the virus has passed.

In the cities and towns workers will struggle to find employment again and catch up with bills, leading to the likelihood some of those now-closed businesses may never reopen.

In the agriculture sector, and more broadly the commodities sector, nobody is sure what the future holds.

At the time of writing, oil sits at just over $24 a barrel, having flirted with $20 a barrel at times in the preceding three days. But that doesn’t paint the full picture for Canada, as that figure is for Texas crude. Western Canadian Select trades at a steep discount to that and it’s been below $8 a barrel at times.

That’s translated into a “meltdown” in the ethanol sector, according to one recent headline from the Reuters news service.

One bright sign is that, as China recovers, demand there for agriculture products seems to be bouncing right back too. At the time of writing Reuters was reporting Chicago wheat futures as “extending gains” and corn as “holding firm” and soybeans as “rising.”

For Canadian farmers this, combined with a suddenly weaker loonie making their prices in Canadian dollars more attractive, paints a less-than-discouraging picture.

Also in the positive column is the decline in interest rates that will help them continue to make their payments in challenging times.

Farming has always been an uncertain business, and farmers are more accustomed than most to adjusting to variations in income as well as to their operating environment.

In these times, the challenge is to maintain social connections while adhering to social distancing. But all things considered, farmers and their families are well positioned to ride this one through.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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