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A registered nurse draws a COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at the Saskatoon Tribal Council run vaccination clinic inside SaskTel centre in Saskatoon on April 15, 2021.Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press

For most of the pandemic, the view south was flattering.

No matter how bad things got, Canadians were always able to console themselves with how it could have been worse. Why, we could have been living in the United States. It took only a cursory glance at Donald Trump’s America to see what worse looked like. Canadians got to revel in that most Canadian of medical conditions: congenital smugness.

Until, that is, April 9, 2021.

The date marked a first. New cases of COVID-19 in Canada, adjusted for population, for the first time exceeded those in the U.S. In a class of two, we now ranked behind the kid who spent 2020 actively trying to fail.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control recently warned Americans to “avoid all travel to Canada,” deeming it very high risk. “If you must travel to Canada, get fully vaccinated,” the CDC advised but “because of the current situation in Canada even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk.”

As nobody needs reminding, the past week has been a tough one for Canada. In much of the country, it has been the pandemic’s worst week yet.

In Ontario, intensive-care units are becoming overwhelmed. They’re treating more than twice as many COVID-19 patients as during last spring’s first wave peak, and 50 per cent more than at the top of January’s bigger second wave. On Thursday, Ontario reported nearly 5,000 positive tests, a new daily record.

British Columbia this week hit new record highs for infections, hospitalizations and patients in the ICU. In Saskatchewan, the number of people in the ICU this month has been higher than ever. In Quebec, case and hospitalization numbers are below the winter peak, but climbing.

Alberta has a daily new infection rate that, as of Wednesday, was higher than 39 U.S. states. Thirty-seven states have lower infection levels than Ontario; 36 are lower than Saskatchewan. B.C.’s rate of new COVID-19 cases is now higher than Washington, and nearly triple California.

There is some good news in all this, and it’s that vaccinations work. The Americans corralled their third wave in part by delivering, as of Wednesday, 58 shots per 100 people. Canada, with less vaccine supply, has vaccinated at less than half that rate. The U.S. progress offers hope, as does Canada’s own progress in vaccinating most of its long-term care residents. COVID-19 deaths in LTC homes have gone from frequent to rare.

At the same time, the U.S. series of pandemic failures shows just how much other public-health measures matter. For example, Michigan, despite a much higher vaccination level than Ontario, is currently being hit by a much larger variant-powered fourth wave. In response, the state is still debating whether to ban indoor dining. It’s in part due to that reluctance to use basic public-health measures that the U.S. death rate since the start of the pandemic is triple Canada’s.

The U.S. disaster zone long allowed Canadians to imagine that we were doing well against COVID-19 even when – outside of the gold-medal standard of public health achieved in Atlantic Canada – we weren’t. Graded against Australia, or South Korea, or Taiwan (or Nova Scotia), Canada got a failing grade.

But we kept looking at the U.S. During the first wave a year ago, Canada’s cases peaked at half the U.S. level. The U.S. then had a summer second wave, when Canada’s cases were low. A second wave struck Canada hard in the winter, but the corresponding U.S. third wave was three times higher.

That’s not the story any more. Look at B.C. Long lauded, it’s now being battered. B.C.’s positive test rate is dangerously high, around 10 per cent. In California, which proportionately does twice as much testing, the positivity rate is less than 2 per cent. Yes, California has done much worse in the pandemic. Five times more people died there than in B.C. – but now it’s B.C. doing worse, and B.C. has also been slow to do more testing, and keeps much essential data secret.

This flipped script, with Canada as the North American remedial student, is rattling.

Canada’s pandemic response has been marked by more failures than successes. Until now, looking across the border allowed Canadians to elide that truth. We could console ourselves with whataboutism: Sure, things are bad – but they could be so much worse. Worse could be seen, right next door.

The view south is no longer so comforting.

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