U.S. Failed on COVID-19. Canada Shows a Better Way

646,970 lives.

These are the Americans that would still be living today, if America had the same COVID-19 per capita death rate as Canada.

Take a second to reflect on how many lives were lost. It is greater than all of Detroit’s population. It is also more than all the American deaths in World War I and II combined.

Canada is the closest country to the U.S., as its economy and culture share many similarities with us. Yet faced with a life-threatening pandemic of historic proportions, Canada showed far greater success in protecting the lives of its people than the U.S. How are we to understand Canada’s superior performance and the disastrous performance of our own country, which has the highest per capita death rate (3023 per one million, compared to Canada’s 1071) of any wealthy democratic country?

Comparing the countries requires that the beginning point be the differences in government response. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in March 2020, “I’m going to make sure that we continue to follow all the recommendations of public health officers particularly around stay-at-home whenever possible and self-isolation and social distancing”. This message was reinforced by Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, who in March delivered a message urging solidarity, declaring “We need to act now, and act together.”

In the U.S., President Trump in striking contrast declared that he would not be wearing a mask, saying “I don’t think I will be doing it…I just don’t see it”. And instead of reinforcing the messages of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other leading public health officials, Trump actively undermined them, declaring in reference to stay-at-home orders in some states, “I think elements of what they’ve done are just too tough.” Not content with undercutting his top public health advisers, President Trump further undermined public confidence in science by suggesting “cures” for COVID-19, including at one point ingesting bleach and taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug that research confirmed had no efficacy as a COVD-19 treatment.

The divergent national responses were used to influence the responses of Canada’s state and province governments, and the public. By the beginning of July 2020, the impact of these divergent responses was already visible, with Canada’s death rate just 60 percent of the American rate. As Canada’s more stringent public health measures—which included larger and stricter stay-at-home orders, closure of restaurants, gyms, and other businesses, curfews, and limits on public gatherings—took effect, the gap between the two countries widened even more. In October 2020 the Canadian death rate per capita was only 40% lower than the U.S.

It is tempting to blame America’s disastrous response to COVID-19 on Trump, and there is no question that he bungled the situation. But the pandemic revealed deep fault lines in America’s institutions and culture that would have made effective responses difficult no matter who was in the White House. For example, Barack Obama would not have been elected president when COVID-19 was announced. He, like many others, faced a country with no national health system. A culture that is strongly libertarian and opposed to the sacrifices required for the common good.

On the subject of vaccines, the differences between Canada and the U.S. became more apparent. Although the U.S. had purchased large quantities of vaccines ahead of time, it was still far ahead of Canada with only 21 percent of Americans and 2 percent respectively getting vaccinated before April 1, 2021. Although the U.S. still had a lead in July, 74% of Canadians had been fully vaccinated by October 1st, as compared with just 58% of Americans. Part of the difference no doubt resides in the superior access provided by Canada’s system of universal, publicly funded healthcare. Equally important, and perhaps more so, is Canada’s far higher trust in its national government, at 73 percent, as opposed to 50 percent in America. The result of greater vaccine resistance in America is an even bigger gap in Canada’s proportion of unvaccinated people: 32% in Canada, and only 22% in the U.S.

A further factor that contributes to the much higher COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., is simply the fact that Americans are healthier than Canadians. Americans have a higher risk of developing COVID due to lack of universal healthcare, as well as being plagued with high levels of racial and class inequality. The obesity rate in America is 42 percent, compared to 27 percent in Canada. Also, the diabetes rate for Americans is 9.4 percent and Canadians are 7.3 percent. The overall health and longevity of Canadians are better than those in America. They live longer with an average lifespan of 82.2 years, compared to the U.S.’s 78.3 years.

These differences in health can be exacerbated by the cultural differences that exist between these two countries. Seymour Martin Lipset, a sociologist who lived more than 30 years ago, noted that in Continental DivideThe ideologies anti-statism, individualism and other ideas were more popular in America than they were in Canada. Many Americans were affected by the strong libertarian strand of American culture, and its extensive right-wing media apparatus. Masks were considered a violation or tyranny and vaccines an act of tyranny. Canada, which produced a trucker convoy that shut down the nation’s capital, is not immune to such sentiments. These sentiments were more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada and caused a level of non-compliance that was unmatched in Canada. To give one example: the Canadian mask wearing rate in January 2022, when Omicron was its peak was 81%, was only 50% in the U.S.

After a disaster like this, it is important to conduct an investigation as to what occurred and how the future might have been prevented. The nation responded to the attacks on September 11, 2001 by forming the Commission, which released a major report in less than two years. A pandemic that claimed the lives of over one million Americans is surely worthy of a serious report. It might not be a bad idea to have such an inquiry conducted by non-governmental entities made up of experts and distinguished citizens in the current climate of extreme political partisanship. However, whatever the form of such a commission, it should address one pressing question: Why did so many countries (including Canada) respond so well to the COVID-19 epidemic? We could—and should—learn from their experiences, so that the U.S. does better when the next pandemic arrives.

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