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Cars wait in line to receive free medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical practices, July 27, 2020, at a drive-through distribution center set up in a Rose Bowl parking lot in Pasadena California.


Until about the middle of June, the pandemic had been proceeding along roughly similar lines in the United States and Canada. To be sure, the U.S. had peaked higher and fallen slower: from about 100 new daily cases per million population at its spring high to 60 by the second week in June, versus 50 and 10, respectively, in Canada. Still, the trend, at least, was the same.

Then the two countries began to diverge. In Canada, the number of new cases, and deaths, continued to fall, then levelled out. Nearly two months later, we are still averaging about 10 new cases per million. The death rate, meanwhile, has plummeted, from about 1.2 new deaths per million in early June (itself down from about five a month earlier) to about 0.2 today.

But in the U.S., the pandemic renewed its spring offensive. By the last week of July, the number of new cases had surged to more than 200 per million; the number of new deaths to more than three. There has been some easing since then, but still: Americans are currently being infected with the virus about 16 times as often, per capita, as Canadians. The disparity in per-capita death rates is comparable.

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This is less a statement of how well Canada has handled the pandemic than how poorly the United States has. While our death rate, per capita, now ranks among the best in the world, it was among the very worst earlier. Our infection rate is distinctly middle-of-the-pack. Compared with top crush-the-curvers such as South Korea, Taiwan or New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. appear more similar than different.

Nevertheless, the difference is real enough. What can explain it? Policy can only take us so far. Taken on the whole, the two countries have imposed broadly similar restrictions on public activity, of broadly comparable severity, measured by the University of Oxford’s “government response stringency index.” Governments in this country, moreover, made many of the same mistakes as their U.S. counterparts.

We, like they, were too complacent about the pandemic in the early days. Our experts, like theirs, initially dismissed the value of masks, only to reverse themselves later. We were too slow to ramp up testing – indeed, the U.S., which lagged far behind us in the early days, now tests far more of its population, per capita. And we were even slower to lock down the border.

Is it, then, a matter of compliance? Are Canadians simply a more obedient lot than Americans? You see a lot of that sort of argument these days, based on well-worn stereotypes about the two countries. (Old joke: How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “C’mon guys, time to get out of the pool.”)

A Los Angeles Times columnist visiting Canada recently marvelled at the differences in “national character” between the two countries. Unlike Americans, he said, Canadians “pride themselves on being a nation that generally follows the rules.” He quoted a Canadian columnist in support, intoning the usual mantras: “Canadians accept big government … . We defer to authority.”

It’s a plausible thesis. The problem is in finding data to support it. Americans are considerably more likely to wear masks, for instance, according to a YouGov poll in late June: 86 per cent said they always or sometimes wore a mask when they left the house, versus 77 per cent of Canadians. Canadians, on the other hand, report they are more likely to refrain from touching elevator buttons, and to avoid public gatherings – but again, this is survey data.

Citizens of the two countries also show no marked difference in mobility since the pandemic, according to data compiled by Google. Canadians have reduced their visits to retail and recreation spots by 13 per cent, relative to the study’s January-February baseline; in the U.S., the figure is 16 per cent. We avoid transit stations more than Americans (down 36 per cent from the baseline, versus 24 per cent), but workplaces less (down 11 per cent, compared to 17 per cent).

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That fabled Canadian orderliness has always had more myth than reality to it. The country was founded, after all, in the aftermath of the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada – comic operas, to be sure, compared with the vast tragedy of the Civil War some years later, but hardly evidence of the sort of bovine docility commonly ascribed to us. The Riel Rebellions shaped much of the West’s development.

The Fathers of Confederation, far from proto-socialists, were a clutch of tight-fisted Victorian liberals, heavily influenced by the writings of Smith and Mill. Their legacy has endured: Until 1961, Canada spent a smaller proportion of GDP through its various governments than did the U.S. The Americans had a national public pension system years before we did; ditto unemployment insurance. We stole the name “medicare” from them.

It’s only comparatively recently that Canadians acquired their self-image as North American Swedes, and it’s a tenuous thing at that. There is far more consensus in favour of free trade in this country, for instance, as there is, or was, in favour of balanced budgets. (For that matter, the Swedes aren’t really the Swedes of myth, being both robust free traders and low corporate taxers.)

If Canadians have done a better job of pulling together in the pandemic, it may be less because we have more trust in government than because we have more trust in each other. We have been largely spared the serial traumas the Americans have endured this century: 9/11, Iraq, the housing and financial market collapses. As such we have not developed the same kind of generalized distrust – of authority, of expertise, of the “other side” – that has so poisoned public discourse in the U.S., of which Donald Trump is as much a consequence as a contributor.

If nothing else, when governments in Canada, at whatever level, unveil some new policy to fight the pandemic, requiring people to alter their behaviour in certain ways, they do not have to contend with the country’s leader telling them to ignore it.

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