Bob Price talks with the BC Chamber of Commerce’s Val Litwin about how BC businesses are dealing with COVID-19, and what needs to happen next.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundation of the BC business sector like never before in our lifetime. As president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, Val Litwin has witnessed the unthinkable from a front row seat, communicating daily with the men and women who make the province’s economy tick. The devastation caused by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for Litwin, whose normally optimistic nature is .
Bob Price: Mr. Litwin, could you ever have imagined such a time?
Val Litwin: “I don’t think any of us could have imagined what is unfolding right now. I think what people are waking up to in this new reality is that one person’s spending is another person’s income.
And as people are beginning to socially isolate, and huge swaths of the economy are beginning to shut down, people are understanding that the cascading effects are immense. We are just beginning to wrap our heads on what this will mean two weeks from now, or two months from now. It really is quite something and we are concerned.”
BP: Was there any way the business sector could have braced for a challenge of this magnitude?
VL: “You know, I think in this new world where we have a truly globally integrated economy, when you have an incident in one part of the planet, it reverberates and ripples so much faster than it used to. But I don’t know that when we were looking at the virus spread in Wuhan a month ago, that we would be facing this here and now today.
We do now live in a new world. Our thinking, readiness, business continuity, and ultimately recovery has to be re-evaluated now in this new world.”
BP: What is your biggest fear moving forward?
VL: So, we just concluded a COVID-19 business impact survey. The survey was only open for about four and a half days. We had almost 8,000 businesses chime in.
90% of businesses are saying they are already being impacted, 82% have seen a drop in revenue, 75% say they anticipate their revenues will be cut in half.
But here is the most telling data point: A full quarter of those 8,000 businesses expect their revenue to fall to zero!
There are about 400,000 small and medium sized business enterprises in BC right now. If you wipe out a quarter of them, what does that mean for not just our provincewide business community, but more importantly, the communities that they operate in, where they support local jobs and charities? If they have to close their doors, the effects on local communities will be devastating.
BP: A pretty safe assumption that several small business operations won’t survive?
VL: International research suggests that post-disaster, about 43% of small businesses don’t make it. The average small business owner doesn’t have six months of retained earnings sitting in the bank to float payroll. This will be especially devastating for those businesses.
BP: What about social concerns?
VL: We’ve already had about one million Canadians sign up for employment insurance. This has never happened before, and what I am trying to wrap my head around is the social impact component. You think about the mental health implications of millions of people self-isolating, the mental stress and anguish of having to lay off teams, shutter your business, losing your income.
You might have had your life savings in that business, and now you’re seeing your life savings just melt away. So I am very much concerned for the health and safety of everyone because of the virus itself. But I’m very concerned as well about the long-term impacts of what this will mean for mental health and community cohesion.
BP: How do you feel about the response by senior levels of government?
VL: Let me just say that this would be one of the times in history that the business community and governments are in total agreement that everything has to be on the table, and we have to be working around the clock to fix things. So I commend our federal and provincial governments for taking this as seriously as they have. What is clear is we need to keep doing more.
The call to action now to governments is to keep listening to business. With our bcmindreader.com platform, we will continue to remind governments they have the permission to go big or go home.
Even provincially, we fully expect this government to go into deficit. They have to get creative, to think outside the box – with nothing off the table.
BP: Do you have any personal thoughts apart from business on what we are witnessing?
VL: I think for most people, this is a surreal feeling. Here we are in early spring; the sun is shining, the birds are chirping – but we are facing a new economic and social reality if we don’t address this crisis in real time.
I think now for government, the real challenge is going to be striking that balance between the urgent need for health and safety parameters, but also how do we get portions of the economy going again, where we can assure the health and safety of workers. Because we can’t continue with an economy chugging along at 5% of what it used to be.
BP: Final question, can you offer your business colleagues around BC any encouragement?
VL: I do think we’ll get through this. I do feel that Canada is better situated than some of the other countries that have been hard hit. I think our elected officials are taking this seriously. What I would say to Orca readers and people at the community level is to stay strong and to think as a team.
I know we are all isolated right now, but if you can order some take-out from a local small business, if you can make an online donation to your local hospice or soup kitchen, don’t forget about your community.
Priority number one of course is our families, but we must maintain our communities. I think that will get us through.
Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.
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