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With restaurants closed to in-person dining, people instead enjoy their lunch on benches at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto on Jan. 5.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

As the Omicron variant surges, lockdowns are once again the rule for most Canadians, while in most parts of the United States restrictions are few.

We are about to witness the effects of two very different approaches to managing the fifth pandemic wave.

“It’s the difference between ‘peace, order and good government’ and ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Jon Allen, a former Canadian diplomat who is a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, in an interview.

While Canadians, despite grumbles and howls, acquiesce in more weeks of lockdown, in the United States, “the tide of opinion is such that no politician seems to be able to do anything close to a lockdown,” he observed. Two countries, two systems, two cultures.

Quebec and Ontario, with more than 60 per cent of Canada’s population, are leading the way: Classrooms are once again virtual, restaurants and entertainment venues shuttered and people work from home.

In the U.S., in contrast, most students have returned to classes, most shops, restaurants and entertainment venues remain open, and mask-wearing is optional in many states.

You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to predict the results. With fewer Americans vaccinated than Canadians – 78 per cent of the total population for us compared with 63 per cent for them, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center – and with fewer restrictions in place, the American mortality rate, which is already more than three times that of Canada’s, could climb even higher.

Many Canadians will consider those differing mortality rates as proof the Canadian response to COVID-19 has been superior to the American one. Many Americans would disagree.

The political culture of the United States is rooted in individualism, says Jeremi Suri, a historian at University of Texas at Austin, whose latest book is on the American presidency.

“Fundamentally, when in doubt, individuals don’t trust some larger government or centralized entity,” he told me. “And I think the longer COVID goes on, the more that individualism comes forward.”

As well, he points out, American federalism is more decentralized, with power tending to gravitate to the local level: “Let Starbucks figure out what Starbucks wants to do.”

In order to preserve individual and local autonomy, American culture accepts a level of violence and death that other cultures reject, he says. “When we shoot ourselves, when we kill ourselves, there’s a long tradition of saying that having the freedom to do that is better than taking it away to preserve lives.”

For many Americans – though by no means all – higher mortality is the unfortunate, but acceptable, price of liberty.

The most common, and best, explanation for the differing values of the two cultures lies in the fact that America was born in revolution, resulting in the celebration of the individual and the local, while Canada remained loyal to the Crown and evolved gradually from colony to sovereign state, resulting in higher levels of trust in public institutions.

As well, Canada managed tensions between French and English by developing a culture of accommodation rooted in respect for differences that led to today’s multiculturalism. Most Canadians seem to prefer this respectful, consensual, accommodative society to the American political maelstrom, especially given the growing polarization south of the border.

But Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, reminds us that the American way has its own advantages. “There is a much more competitive federalism here,” he said. Different communities provide different approaches tailored to local conditions and priorities.

There remains no substitute anywhere on Earth for American dynamism. After all, Canadians may be more willing to accept a vaccine than Americans, but the United States was a global leader in the race to develop and distribute vaccines.

As Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, reminded us this week in Policy Magazine: “When it comes to democracy, the commentariat focuses on politics and its reflection in social media. But for most Americans, the ins and outs of politics are not central to their daily lives.”

Despite everything, he wrote, “My bet is still on the energy and vitality of the American people and their institutions.” Mine too.

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