A Tale of Two Countries

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update to the media on COVID-19 in BC. (Province of BC)

If an American wants to understand how leadership and unity make a difference in the fight against COVID-19, they do not need to look across the globe to countries like South Korea, New Zealand or Singapore. Instead, they should shift their gaze to the north of the border.

The American public has, by and large, truly done a magnificent job in the battle against this virus in the past few weeks. When medical experts first projected that COVID-19 could kill as many as 100,000 to 200,000 Americans it was based on an estimation that only 50% of Americans would observe social distancing. Instead, those same experts have been able to drastically lower the possible death count to around 60,000 because more than 90% of Americans have engaged in social distancing.

American media regularly cover the stories of the heroes of the COVID-19 battle – the doctors, the nurses, the truck drivers, the grocery store workers, the postal workers, the delivery people – who literally risk their lives to care for people or try to help the country maintain some semblance of normality.

The problem is at the top.

When you look at the differences between the way politicians in Canada and the United States have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, the differences could not be more jarring.

Let’s start with the leaders.

In the United States you have Donald Trump who relentlessly blames others for his poor response to the virus. He ignored repeated warnings. He has confused Americans with misinformation and a lack of leadership that was made plain in his statement that he takes “no responsibility” for his country’s chaotic and slapdash response to this emergency.

Trump has consistently sent out signals that he cares more about how COVID-19 will affect the stock market and his reelection than he does about the American people, and his actions and the actions of his closest advisors reinforce this belief. One only needs to read the extensive and thoroughly reported piece in Sunday’s N.Y. times to realize how badly this administration has handled the crisis.

Oh Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, there has been some valid criticism that perhaps Justin Trudeau’s government also reacted too slowly to the initial reports of the spread of COVID-19. The difference is, however, what happened afterwards.

While not the most popular politician in Canada’s history, and struggling with a minority government after the last election, Trudeau has largely been everything you want a leader to be. He has been a voice of reason and encouragement to the Canadian people.

For instance, read this speech about his government’s economic plan to help Canadians. While on the one hand it delivers information about this policy initiative, on the other hand the speech can only be described as stirring, particularly the ending where Trudeau refers to how the older generation of Canadians helped build Canada to be what it is today and that it is up to younger Canadians to protect them and that heritage.

It stands in stark contrast to Pres. Trump’s tweets about his favorable “ratings,” his jokes about “models” and his attempts to blame anyone and everyone about his administration’s problems with COVID-19.

There are other important differences between Canada and United States.

One is the cooperation in Canada between the federal government and the provincial governments. A recent column by Peter Loewen, professor of political science and at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at The University of Toronto, Taylor Owen, associate professor of public policy at McGill University, and Derek Ruths, associate professor of computer science at McGill University described it this way:

So far, Canadian political action around the COVID-19 pandemic has seen more cooperation between the federal and provincial governments than we have seen at any other point since 2015. Ministers are actively avoiding criticism of one another and are largely focused on the same goals. Indeed, much has been made of the camaraderie between Doug Ford [Conservative premier of Ontario] and Chrystia Freeland ( Liberal Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs], and it has overshadowed larger political concessions, like Ontario all but laying down arms in its political opposition to a carbon tax.

Public Health Officials the New Canadian Heroes

Another important difference is how Canadian politicians have deferred to the health experts and science. This is particularly seen in the role that Canada’s public health officers have played in the crisis. They have literally become rock stars.

Officials like British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry, Prince Edward Island’s Dr. Heather Morrison, Québec’s Dr. Horracio Arruda or the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Teresa Tam have been lauded by Canadians of all stripes for their clear, unambiguous daily briefings about COVID-19.

These public health officials have been free to give Canadians the straight goods – that means they are honest when things are bad and straightforward about what Canadians need to do in order to reduce the effects of COVID-19. They have earned the overwhelming support of Canadians.

Meanwhile, America’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been lauded by many, was recently forced to accept protection from the Health and Human Services department because of the many death threats against him. It also appears he had started telling a little too much truth for Trump.

Finally, Canadian politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, deserves to be applauded for their willingness to stand back and let the people who know what they’re talking about have the center stage. It’s also been encouraging to see how politicians have not attacked each other but have done their very best to work together in a time of crisis.

No one is naïve enough to believe that this will continue forever. But the fact that it is happening is important.

To some degree it reflects the differences between the philosophies of Canada and the United States. In Canada it’s “peace, order and good government” while in the United States it’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Most of the time, people will choose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But in a moment when our ability to work together matters if we are going to defeat the menace of COVID-19, peace, order and good government might be the better choice.

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