Canada United, the US in Chaos

The two countries’ proximate national days occasion a moment of reflection, particularly about the Covid-19 pandemic. The rapid increase in cases in the US is leading to self-examination and comparison with other countries. Recently Anderson Cooper was comparing the US to Italy and Korea. His conclusion was that the US is now in as bad a place as Italy was two months ago and that the US doesn’t have social norms (such as the acceptance of masks and rigorous contact tracing) that would have allowed it to escape the impact of the pandemic almost entirely, as Korea has.

Cooper didn’t compare the US with Canada, which is unfortunate given how much the two countries share in common. Canada is seeing approximately 400 new cases per day, a number that is steady or falling. The US is seeing 40,000 new cases per day and rising. Though its population is 8 times that of Canada, new cases in the US are 100 times those in Canada.

The indisputable difference between Canada and the US is in the rhetoric and policy decisions of political leaders. Encouraged by the President, many governors ended their lockdowns very quickly and before there was evidence that the virus had been contained. In contrast, Canada’s conservative politicians who were skeptics about climate science have become believers in epidemiology. The most conservative premiers – Kenny and Ford – have co-operated seamlessly with the federal government, putting their considerable weight behind restrictions intended to slow the pandemic’s spread. And all Canada’s political leaders have been guided by public health officials and have exercised caution in reopening. On Covid-19, Canada has stood united.

Public attitudes are harder to measure, but important to interpret, as they influence politicians’ decisions. It appears that most Canadians have accepted the necessity of masks and other restrictions. There were few demonstrations demanding a swift reopening of the economy and mask wearing has not become an ideological battleground. Comparative research on public attitudes towards containment policies (stratified by age, region, income, and ethnicity to be sure) will be an important component of our understanding of the pandemic.

This is not to say that Canada’s performance on fighting the pandemic has been stellar. A more accurate assessment is that it has been mediocre, encompassing widespread outbreaks in seniors’ homes, a slow and uncoordinated governmental response at the outset, and difficulties ramping up testing and tracking.

The US’s performance on the pandemic has displayed “American exceptionalism” of the worst kind. The Trump and Bolsonaro administrations have formed an axis of denial, deception, and death. It is no surprise that numerous countries, particularly those of the EU, have closed their borders to Americans and Brazilians. While the EU’s explicit justification for closing its borders to Americans is the high incidence of Covid-19 in the US, I’m sure the Europeans don’t want to deal with the Americans who appear in the media every day, espousing contempt for social distancing and mask-wearing.

Step beyond Covid-19 for a bigger sense of the zeitgeist in both Canada and the US. On what is likely to be a muted Canada Day, minds may turn to the challenges of building what we modestly refer to as “a better Canada,” including ending racism against Canadians who are indigenous, Black, or of colour; reconciling respect for the environment with resource development; and rethinking our traditional foreign policy, with its reliance on a privileged relationship with the US and the support of multilateral institutions. And our responses to these challenges must take into account the burden of a huge increase in public sector debt. Working through these policy issues will, of course, result in much more divisiveness than has been the case regarding the immediate response to the pandemic.

The zeitgeist in the US is so much more conflicted, encompassing the failing response to the pandemic and widespread unrest over racist policing. A president who is a serial liar and science denier has hindered the response to the pandemic, and his pandering to white supremacists has enflamed the policing controversy. And the election campaign is just moving into full swing.


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