This is my first posting of the year 2020. How the world has changed. At the beginning of the year, which wasn’t so long ago, I never would have thought I’d be writing about a pandemic in quarantine. I did not think I would live through a pandemic in this lifetime or a third major economic downturn since my university days.
In these pandemic months, while our savings have evaporated into thin air and millions of people have filed for government assistance, one question I have been returning to is: what is considered an essential job? On the night of March 5th, I was enjoying a meal with two friends at a local tea shop. Just another nondescript night. Yes, everyone was aware of a new coronavirus, but surely, we were too far from the epicenter (China), right? There were media rumblings about some foreign SARS-like virus but neither my friends nor I were the paranoid type. Hardly anyone died in 2003, and all I remember from 2003 was the east coast blackout but have little memory of the SARS virus. Little did we know that in about 2 weeks, businesses including this little tea shop would be among the casualties of a government order to close down non-essential businesses to prevent the spread of this virus. The lovely owner who served Toronto’s Annex community for years likely lost her livelihood in one fell swoop. As we all learned, the “epicenter” of the virus was a moving target. Viruses know no boundaries. Restaurants, retail stores, shopping centers, sports arenas, libraries, and just about every public space that could hold more than 10 people entered a lockdown with no end in sight. They were deemed “non-essential”. Surely, people could live without dining out or visiting a hockey game at the good old Scotiabank arena, but they definitely need their groceries, take the transit, and visit the doctor for non-elective surgeries. Thus, grocery chains are open as are public transit and hospitals. The pandemic has stripped our economy to its bare minimum – just a few critical sectors to provide just enough oxygen to the economy for it to stay afloat. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s the jobs that sustain the bottom-most tier of human needs.
I also know that as jobs evaporate, many of us are re-evaluating our career options. As 2020 has shown, the essential career sectors withstand the test of time and pandemics. They are the rock solid careers like medicine, nursing and pharmacy. But also, the pandemic shines a spotlight on careers that are not traditionally considered white-collar careers but are equally essential. These are the truck drivers who keep the supply chain afloat, the sanitation workers, the city bus drivers, and grocery store workers. In the pre-pandemic era, these people probably barely registered on our minds. They have always been taken for granted. But during the pandemic, they are a daily reminder that everyone’s job is critical to the economy. They are the unsung heroes who put their lives on the line every day in the battle against the virus.
How will the post-covid world look? Will there be a spike in the number of people enrolling in truck driving schools or an uptick in the number of applicants for a handful of transit driver positions? The reactionary response is to train for an essential job so that we will be ready for the next pandemic whether it’s going to medical school or training to be a truck driver. But how can we predict when the pandemic will be or another major economic downturn? We can’t. An economy consisting of people who are only in it for survival becomes lackluster. It would no longer capitalize on human ingenuity and creativity; in other words, the best that we offer as a civilization. As the survivors of the 2020 pandemic reexamine career options, a question we should ask ourselves is how can we best use our talents and skills to create a world that would not succumb to a Wuhan virus or any pathogen natural or man-made?
Now is not the time to create a division between essential jobs and non-essential jobs. A strong economy runs on human creativity and intellectual prowess across disciplines. The time in quarantine is also time to think in the long term.