Culture shapes politics. The lives of thousands of Canadians may be saved thanks to this country’s political culture. Americans may not be so lucky.
In the United States, how people view the coronavirus pandemic has a lot to do with how they vote. A Pew Research poll showed that 59 per of those who identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents considered the outbreak a major threat to public health; only 33 per cent of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents felt the same way. (The results are based on a survey of 8,914 members of a panel between March 10-16.)
A poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that 81 per cent of Republican voters approve of how President Donald Trump is handling the crisis, while 84 per cent of Democrats disapprove. Among independents, 43 per cent approve, while 52 per cent disapprove. (The poll surveyed 900 registered voters March 11-13, with more than half reached by cellphone, and has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.)
“Much of the way Americans look at the world today reflects their underlying political partisanship, and initial evidence shows that the coronavirus situation is no exception,” an analysis by Gallup News concluded.
In Canada, the federal Conservative opposition has taken the threat of COVID-19 as seriously as the Liberal government from the beginning. Erin O’Toole, a leading candidate in the Conservative leadership campaign, has been strident at times, in his criticism of the government, especially on border issues. But on Sunday he called for the campaign to be suspended and for all party-unity in the fight against the disease.
And though critics maintain politicians should have moved more quickly, provincial governments of all stripes tested for the disease earlier and more aggressively and imposed stricter isolation restrictions than in the U.S.
As of Sunday morning, 19 people in Canada had died as a result of contracting COVID-19, according to the Government of Canada website, compared to more than 370 deaths in the U.S. as of Sunday afternoon, according to CNN, which suggests that deaths-per-million are almost twice as high in the U.S. as in Canada.
The situation could easily change in the days and weeks ahead, as the United States devotes more resources to battling the disease. But it seems that, at least in these early days, Canada is doing a better job than the United States in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Of course, a different president – any different president – might have heeded the advice of public-health officials and moved more quickly to fight the pandemic. And whether the private-versus-public nature of the two countries’ health-care systems makes a difference deserves an investigation.
But trust in government must also be a factor. Historically, Canadians have been more deferential toward authority than Americans. Their republic was born in rebellion; our dominion evolved with due respect for those in charge.
On St. Patrick’s Day, despite pleas by officials for everyone to stay indoors, revellers lined up to get into Chicago’s bars. “I’m not about to put my life on hold because this is going around,” Kyle Thomas, a nurse, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
But in Toronto, the bars and restaurants were closed, after Premier Doug Ford’s government declared a state of emergency. No one took to the streets in protest.
Canadians everywhere are having to learn what social distancing means: how often you should go to the grocery store, whether it’s safe to conduct a group bike ride, how to avoid folks while walking the dog. But this country appears to be implementing a national quasi-quarantine more uniformly and effectively than south of the border.
Again, what’s true now may not be true later. But if public officials are able to point to lower infection rates in Canada than in the United States, that evidence will provide a powerful stimulus for people to continue staying indoors.
How Canada’s political culture compares to that of Italy or Germany or South Korea or Singapore is beyond this writer’s ken. And differences in attitudes between Canadians and Americans could diminish as the disease advances in both countries. On both sides of the border, we are only at the beginning of what’s to come.
But thus far, at least, it appears the situation in Canada could have been worse. Which is such a Canadian thing to say.