In the U.S., the media are full of fury at the sluggish pace of the country’s vaccination rollout. Headlines describe it as a “debacle,” a “disaster,” even a “total disaster,” and why not? As of Thursday, just 36 million doses had been distributed nationwide, of which 17.2 million had been administered, i.e. injected into people’s arms. It’s another in the long list of cockups attributable to the benighted Trump administration, which appears, unbelievably, to have had no plan at all for –
Er, hang on. Thirty-six million doses delivered, you say? Seventeen million administered? Compare these to the corresponding figures for Canada, where fewer than one million doses have been distributed, and just over 700,000 administered. Per capita, the United States has distributed – under Donald Trump, let us remember – more than four times as many doses as Canada, and administered nearly three times as many: five doses per 100 population, to our 1.8. If the U.S. vaccination program is a disaster, what are we to call Canada’s?
It isn’t just the United States we’re lagging behind, after all; there’s also Israel, Britain, Denmark, Lithuania, Spain, Slovenia, Italy, Ireland. All told, a dozen countries around the world have faster rates of vaccination than Canada. Israel may be an outlier, with more than 35 doses administered per 100 population – explicable, perhaps, in a country that is perpetually mobilized against invaders. But how is it that we are so far behind Britain (7.5 doses per 100), or Denmark (3.1) or Spain (2.2)?
This is, mind, before the throttling of shipments from Pfizer, whose version of the vaccine makes up the bulk of our current supply, while it retools its plant in Belgium. Scheduled to begin next week, the slowdown will leave us with about half as many doses a week as we had been told we would receive, for four weeks – three weeks longer than the company’s European customers. Where that will leave us in the international race to immunize our citizens, we can only guess.
And it is a race. Vaccinating as many people as we can isn’t just a matter of saving lives – although the faster we do it, the more lives we will save. It’s also a matter of some economic urgency. The country that emerges quickest from the pandemic, and from the curbs on activity most countries have adopted in response, will not only save that much more in lost GDP. Its companies will also have a head-start in international trade, able to resume supplying customers, domestic and foreign, while their foreign rivals remain in lockdown.
The Trudeau government’s defence of this dreadful record has been a series of shrugs, excuses and deflections. First, we were told that Canada had signed more deals with more suppliers for more doses, per capita, than any other country – enough to vaccinate everyone in the country several times over – as if having more doses than we need six months or a year from now could compensate for having fewer than we need today.
Then we were told that, so far as we lagged behind other countries – the U.S. and Britain were the only ones mentioned – it was all the fault of previous governments, who had overseen the departure of Canada’s domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity. But we don’t have to make the vaccines ourselves to secure a timely supply: We can pay others to make them for us. Pay enough early enough and you can lock up all the doses you need. It’s still less expensive than propping up an otherwise uneconomic industry for years on end on the off chance a once-in-a-century pandemic happens along.
Presumably that’s how countries such as Lithuania and Slovenia have managed to get ahead of us, despite having no domestic vaccine industries. Indeed, part of the explanation for the Trudeau government’s failure to do the same may prove to be that it wasted precious weeks and months trying to develop a home-grown vaccine.
Last we were told, the problem lay with the provinces. The Prime Minister went so far as to pronounce himself “disappointed” that the provinces were not moving faster to administer the doses the federal government had delivered to them. Perhaps that was true in the early going, but it’s clear the constraint now is at the federal end. The provinces have administered nearly 80 per cent of doses received to date, on average – more than 90 per cent, in Ontario and Alberta – versus less than 50 per cent among their counterparts south of the border.
Not that that should let the provinces off the hook. The mismanagement of the pandemic has been a bipartisan, pan-Canadian, whole-of-government effort, one that has extended to every aspect of what is arguably the first responsibility of the state: protecting public health. We would not have left ourselves so pathetically dependent on vaccines to save us if we had not bollixed up every other line of defence before them.
From the failure to maintain adequate stocks of protective equipment, to the shuttering of our foreign public-health surveillance capacity, to the conflicting, sometimes mistaken advice to the public on masks and other matters, to the slowness to shut the border, to our abysmal record on testing (Canada has performed just half as many tests, per capita, as the U.S. – again, under Donald Trump), to the omnishambles of provincial lockdown measures, the two levels of governments share responsibility for thousands of needless deaths.
But there’s the rub. Precisely because both the feds and the provinces are at fault – because health is both a federal and a provincial jurisdiction – neither is likely to pay the price for it, in the only way they respect: at the ballot box. By dividing responsibility, federalism has blurred accountability, allowing each level of government to point the finger at the other for any ensuing calamity. When everyone is to blame, no one is.
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