Last fall, before COVID-19 vaccines were on the market, one senior Liberal adviser described the government’s procurement strategy as putting a bet on every square. Months later, it seemed like it had still been a losing wager.
In mid-February, as Israel, the United States and Britain were vaccinating significant portions of the population, the federal minister responsible for vaccine procurement, Anita Anand, was boasting about a “portfolio” of vaccine contracts that was going to deliver, but critics scoffed it was a failure.
Now, the vaccine buy is a success.
By vaccination rate, the number of doses per 100 people, Canada has just matched the United States, where vaccine hesitancy has slowed the pace of inoculation. It is ahead of Europe – ahead of France, ahead of Germany. It is far ahead of Australia or Japan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, eyeing an election this fall, can boast about it.
In fact, when his Liberals go out to recount their pandemic record, they can now tout successes on two big things: stabilizing incomes with the CERB and getting a hold of vaccines.
There were many mistakes and missteps in responding to the pandemic – including getting a slow grip on border controls, failing to spur domestic vaccine production, and a hare-brained aborted plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a student volunteering program run by the well-connected We Charity.
But those two big things will be critical political shields for the Liberals when opponents criticize their pandemic response.
They rushed out cheques when incomes and the economy were crashing in the first wave. And in the end, they are getting vaccines to the bulk of the population faster than most countries.
Those things won’t get Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals re-elected. Voters don’t usually cast ballots to approve something a government has already done. They tend to look ahead.
But when opponents look to take on the Liberal government on its pandemic response, as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole did in a news conference on Tuesday, it is unlikely to be a political winner. Mr. Trudeau has those two big things.
Neither was ideal. But both provided important outcomes people can see close up.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, scrambled out in early April, 2020, was expensive, untargeted and lacked rigorous controls. But the program rushed money into millions of individuals’ bank accounts as they lost incomes.
Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Financial Group, said he wouldn’t use the CERB as a model for recession policy, but in this unusual crisis it was effective – if not cost-effective. The CERB, its successor the CRB and employment-insurance adjustments had a combined cost of nearly $100-billion, he said, and arguably went too far: Incomes went up 9.4 per cent after inflation in 2020, the biggest annual increase in 60 years.
“Simply put, we had a recession without a decline in incomes, and that was largely due to the generous CERB/CRB program,” Mr. Porter said.
There will be a debt hangover. But in politics, it’s hard to beat the idea that you saved the livelihoods of millions.
Now, Mr. Trudeau will be able to claim another success on vaccines.
The slow pace of vaccine deliveries in the first months of the year was an embarrassment as the U.S., and Britain, two countries that manufacture vaccines but were refusing to export them, were rolling out the jabs. But Canada’s pace dramatically accelerated in April and it is hitting milestones for vaccinating substantial shares of its population before most countries.
Canada is still behind Israel and Britain, some British overseas territories, and several small island nations and enclaves. The few other sizable countries that have administered more doses than Canada, such as the United Arab Emirates and Chile, have relied in whole or part on less-effective Chinese vaccines. Chile’s outbreak has declined only a little; the UAE decided to offer a third dose of Sinopharm vaccines.
The Canadian bet on every square did pay off, a little late. There are still deals to get three types of vaccines that haven’t yet been approved. But while some suppliers didn’t meet their deliveries, the target of receiving 48 to 50 million doses by the end of June was still met. Second doses are being accelerated.
Mr. Trudeau will be able to boast about that before an expected fall election. And when opponents go after the Liberal government’s pandemic mistakes, he can point to successes on two big things.
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