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Yukonomist: 2021’s silver linings

The Omicron variant is a late-game sucker punch from a year with a very bad attitude.

The Omicron variant is a late-game sucker punch from a year with a very bad attitude.

The list of bad things 2021 dumped on us is too depressing to enumerate. And Omicron may be about to add a new wave of hospitalizations in the Yukon to the tally.

But even an annus horribilis can have its silver linings.

The first is mRNA technology. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were the first large-scale examples of this high-tech approach to designing new ways to fight disease. Nobel-prize-winning University of Alberta virologist Michael Houghton thinks the technique can be used for many different purposes. Researchers are looking at how mRNA can fight malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis-C and even various kinds of cancer.

The pandemic has supercharged mRNA research, dramatically ramping up the amount of scientific talent and research money.

Protection from COVID-19 probably isn’t the last time you or a loved one will enjoy a life-changing treatment thanks to today’s mRNA research.

Another silver lining is economic. No matter how bad 2021 was, it could have been far worse. Thanks to those unpopular deficit-fighters in past decades, the country went into the pandemic with a strong balance sheet that could ramp up emergency spending on everything from vaccines to CERB.

The number of people with jobs in the Yukon was 23,000 in November, more than we had going into the pandemic. Back in November 2019, the figure was 21,200.

Federal spending also sheltered the provinces and territories. Not only were direct transfers for pandemic-related programs ramped up, but CERB and other income-support programs protected jobs and consumer spending. This resulted in higher than expected income tax revenues.

Last week’s federal economic and fiscal update showed the Yukon benefited particularly from this. The territorial government’s revenue actually went up 11.3 per cent from the 2019-20 fiscal year to the following one. That increase is more than three times bigger than the average province.

For non-government organizations applying for funding, or workers looking for a job, a territorial government with more money than expected is a very welcome silver lining from the pandemic’s economic mayhem.

And while far from universal, the statistics show that the average Canadian family also ramped up its savings during the pandemic. Statistics Canada reported in August that Canadians with the lowest credit ratings repaid the most debt in the first year of the pandemic. Those with credit scores under 640 paid back around $5 billion during that period, or over a third of their balances.

I have heard many people say they feel better about their finances, and that the pandemic has taught them that maybe they don’t need all those gadgets and vacations that cause stressful discussions about the credit card bill around the breakfast table.

Of course, this silver lining does not include mortgage debt as house prices shot upwards. That was great if you already owned a home, but put one even more out of reach for many renters.

Working from home has taught many workers and their bosses that the daily commute was a terrible waste of time and gasoline. While some jobs need face-to-face interactions — it’s hard for a doctor to remove a fish hook from your ear over zoom — many other jobs will stay fully or partially remote.

Technology is another silver lining. Companies and government agencies invested huge sums in improving their online services during the pandemic.

Engineers at car companies kept improving electric cars. Internet-of-things companies kept rolling out new products, from smart watches to floor mopping robots (Roomba sadly has not yet cracked the robotic driveway shoveller).

Elon Musk and Starlink kept launching low-earth-orbit satellites to provide high-bandwidth connectivity across the entire Yukon (and the rest of the world). Low-earth-orbit satellites will be a huge benefit for off-grid Yukoners. As work crews up on the Dempster work on the fibre optic cable project in coming years, they’ll be able to zoom with their families and stream Netflix along the way using their Starlink connections.

Yes, 2021 was truly awful. But this holiday season, it helps to remember a few silver linings. And one of those is cuddling up with family instead of spending time traveling or going to office holiday parties. Stay safe, and enjoy as much family time as you can. And make sure you use that technology to Zoom those friends and family who have to spend another Christmas in isolation.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.