Many beaches in Florida reopened last weekend, as if they existed on a planet not infected with a novel coronavirus. On April 14, the state reported its worst day yet – 72 new COVID-19 deaths. Yet three days later, Governor Ron DeSantis would give the go-ahead to slowly resume normal activities. Live shots of Floridians congregating on beaches that afternoon were like frozen CCTV clips of the seconds before a traffic collision.
It’s a bizarre thing to watch unfold from Canada, where even provinces and territories with flat or receding tallies of COVID-19 cases have yet to relax their physical distancing measures. The U.S., which is rapidly approaching one million active infections, is seeing some state governments already moving in the other direction. Protesters have taken to the streets in multiple states to express their enraged opposition to stay-at-home orders.
These appear to be symptoms unique to the American experience with COVID-19. Nearly 200 countries now struggle with the same disease (along with the economic devastation and social turmoil that come with it). But we see just one infected country where protesters don flags and semi-automatic rifles to challenge government restrictions, and only one elected president who encourages his citizens to revolt against their regional leaders. It’s not a great time to be America’s next-door neighbour.
Canada has its own serious problems with COVID-19, but fortunately, for the next almost-four weeks, U.S. dysfunction will not be among them. Last Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada and the U.S. had reached an agreement to extend cross-border travel restrictions until May 20, meaning that, for now, we are just bystanders to the U.S. experiment in severely disjointed and partisan disease control.
But that won’t last. Our geographic proximity to, and economic dependence on, the U.S. means Canada is never really a bystander to what’s going on in the United States. And with an impetuous president eager to get things going again – regardless of what it might mean for domestic and international COVID-19 spread – the U.S’s problems could very quickly become our own.
Indeed, President Donald Trump appears to perpetually struggle with the notion that COVID-19 is not an ephemeral concern. He insisted in February that the total number of infections would be “close to zero” in a couple of days. He touted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle treatment throughout all of March. On Wednesday, he suggested the virus could be gone by the fall (which was quickly corrected by the U.S. coronavirus task force’s top infectious-disease expert).
Readers can decide if Mr. Trump is a victim of his own unyielding optimism or ferocious stupidity. The point is, he’s going to want that border with Canada open as soon as possible to feed the mirage of his country’s return to normalcy.
That could be disastrous for Canada. Last June, U.S. residents made roughly 2.1 million trips to Canada. If even a fraction of those tourists decide to make their way north again this year (and let’s face it, those inclined to travel now are probably not the type to abide by physical-distancing directives), the provinces’ careful, gradual reopening plans could quickly go awry, with deadly consequences. Canada doesn’t yet have the capacity to properly test and contract-trace its own citizens. Reintroducing travel-related infection on a massive scale will just exacerbate pressures on a system that already can’t cope.
A normal president would recognize the mutual benefit of restricting nonessential travel until both countries can contain their COVID-19 outbreaks. But this is a president that didn’t hesitate to slap tariffs on Canadian steel in the name of national security and who tried to ban the export of N95 respirators to Canada. It is not implausible that Mr. Trump would retaliate in some sort of petty but potentially grave economic way – on supply lines for essential goods, for example – if Canada refuses to lift restrictions on nonessential travel if and when the president decides that time is up. It will be an exceedingly tough needle for Canada’s government to thread.
At the time of writing, the total deaths per capita in the U.S. is nearly three times that of Canada. At the same time, we have fewer hospital beds per 1,000 people than the U.S., and daily testing numbers that are a third of where they need to be to reopen the economy. From a public health perspective, we simply cannot open our borders until we open our country internally – and even then, it must be done with the utmost caution and concern. Otherwise, we won’t simply be witnesses to the irrational whims of the U.S. pandemic response. We very well could be victims of it.
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