Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued forcefully on Friday for keeping businesses closed and people at home into the summer, to fight COVID-19. He may have been directing his message, not just to Canadians, but to Donald Trump.
The U.S. President and his advisers continue to push for an early reopening of the American economy. Mr. Trump proposed and then abandoned an Easter target. Now some figures in the administration are floating May 1 as a possible date.
“When this period of time at the end of April expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have and not just tell people to go home and hide under the bed, but allow them to use other ways – social distancing and other means – to protect themselves," U.S. Attorney-General William Barr said this week on Fox News.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Politico he hoped “in the next four to eight weeks, we will be able to open the economy."
Surgeon-General Jerome Adams said Friday that “as we ramp up testing and can feel more confident that these places actually can do surveillance and can do public health follow-up, some places will be able to think about opening on May 1st,“ though “most of the country will not, to be honest with you.“
At his Friday briefing, Mr. Trump wouldn’t commit to a specific date to start loosening restrictions on people and businesses, saying he would listen to both his medical and economic advisers. But he promised that “at a certain point in the not too distant future" Americans are “going to go back to work and to stay healthy.”
State governors and legislatures decide what restrictions to impose and when to lift them. But it’s quite possible that some states will lift some restrictions next month, while others such as New York remain in lockdown.
Canada is taking a very different approach. At his Friday briefing, Mr. Trudeau emphasized that this country was in the midst of “the first and worst” phase of the spread of COVID-19, in which governments sought to prevent the disease from overwhelming provincial and territorial health care systems by enforcing strict physical isolation and keeping all non-essential businesses closed.
“If we keep these strong measures in place … it is possible that we will be able to be out of that wave this summer,” he said, at which point governments could loosen some restrictions “and get things rolling again.”
But, he emphasized, “we will not get back to the normal that we had before, at least until we have developed a vaccine for the virus.”
In other words, the federal government intends to keep the current lockdown in place at least until summer, after which there may be a cautious and gradual opening of society and the economy, but with no return to normal expected for a year to 18 months, when a vaccine is likely to be ready. This is a far more restrictive approach than the Trump administration is pursuing.
If the President and his advisers are right, the U.S. economy could start to rebound and people return to something approaching a normal life in weeks, not months, even as Canadians stay hunkered down, increasingly resentful as they watch their southern neighbours go about their business.
But if easing restrictions leads to a new spike in infections south of the border, Mr. Trump will be accused of allowing the pandemic to reignite. Not a good look on the eve of a presidential election.
We’ve talked before about how the different political cultures of the United States and Canada are shaping the response of the two countries to this pandemic. Americans place such a strong emphasis on personal and economic freedom that many of them may be willing to accept a large number of COVID-19 deaths, in exchange for being able to live their lives as they see fit.
In Canada, with its greater commitment to collective security, polls show high levels of public support for strong measures to fight the pandemic. Of course we all want our lives back – but not at the risk of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented.
It is both fascinating and frightening to wonder whether the time may come when people in one country will point to people in the other and say: “They were right.”