As border closure extended, Canada and U.S. take very different approaches to pandemic

Closure of the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential travel has been extended for another 30 days. The two countries have taken very different approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic based on their different political cultures. (Richard McGuire Photo)

When U.S. President Donald Trump mused last week about reopening the Canada-U.S. border, there were gasps from many Canadians, fearing an influx of Covid-infected Americans.

At a time when most Canadian provinces – Quebec and Ontario being the exceptions – have been gaining some control over the spread of the novel coronavirus, the situation in the U.S. is raging out of control.

But Trump has no more power to unilaterally open the border than he has to force states to scrap their social distancing measures. And Canadian authorities quickly responded that it was too soon.

Today, Saturday, April 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the two countries had agreed to extend the closure a further 30 days.

The two countries closed the border to non-essential travel on March 21, although the border remains open to freight shipments, as well as essential workers who live on one side of the border, but work on the other.

Also, Canadians abroad are allowed to return home, but must quarantine for 14 days.

The decision to extend the closure is significant for border communities like Osoyoos and Oroville where traditionally there have been strong business, recreation and social ties. It’s even more significant in major border cities like Detroit-Windsor, whose economies are integrated on a larger scale.

The border issue highlights the very different paths that Canada and the U.S. have taken in combatting the virus that causes Covid-19.

Numbers must be used very cautiously, especially when comparing results in different jurisdictions that may have different ways of counting. Higher numbers can be a reflection of better testing rather than more cases. Still, as ballpark figures, they paint a stark contrast between the two countries.

As of Saturday, the total number of cases in Canada was just over 33,350. More than half of those were in Quebec and another 10,000 plus were in Ontario. B.C. had just over 1,600.

At the same time, Canada had close to 1,470 deaths, with more than 800 of those in Quebec. B.C.’s death count to date is 78.

As of Saturday, the U.S. case numbers were approaching 691,000, with nearly 35,500 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s by far the largest outbreak in the world, and more than three times the number in second-place Spain.

Based on an estimated U.S. population of 330 million compared to an estimated Canadian population of 38 million, this means that more than three times as many Americans are dying on a per capita basis compared to Canadians.

Put another way, for every million Americans, 108 people have died of Covid-19 compared to 36 dead Canadians per million people.

Aside from the disclaimer about caution with the numbers, it should also be noted that there are wide disparities between different U.S. states in the number of cases. Close to half the number of reported cases in the U.S. are in New York and neighbouring states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Other states like Montana and Wyoming have only a little more than 400 confirmed cases each.

Some of the reason for the tragic U.S. numbers is the result of geography and bad luck. The New York area is densely populated and is an international transportation hub.

It’s also the result of poverty, lack of universal health care and other social factors. Black and Hispanic Americans have been harder hit by the virus, even though there’s been no evidence of genetic predisposition.

But the differences between Canadian and American political culture and federal leadership appear to be significant factors.

Canada just had a federal election in October that re-elected Trudeau’s Liberals to a minority government. The opposition Conservatives have not yet had a chance to replace leader Andrew Scheer, who is stepping down.

With very few Canadians wanting another election now, the approach between government and opposition parties has been generally constructive. Sure, it’s opposition’s job to point to flaws in the government’s approach, suggest alternatives and hold the government to account. But Canada doesn’t have the toxic political environment that has made cooperation in the U.S. almost impossible at the federal level.

Although Trudeau has made some stumbles, he’s generally been praised for his measured and candid tone and preference for science-driven solutions.

Even at the provincial level, there are not huge differences between the public health approach adopted by premiers representing ideologically different parties.

By contrast, the U.S. is just months away from a presidential election in November. Partisanship has been especially strong throughout the Trump presidency and with the election approaching, it’s ramping up even more.  Covid-19 is highly politicized.

For Trump, the number one priority is to get the stock markets back up and the economy running in time for November’s election. Trump is also trying to distract the public’s attention from his weeks of denial that the virus posed a threat and his vacillating response. His usual method of distraction is using Twitter to attack scapegoats: Democratic governors, international allies, China and the World Health Organization.

After previously calling for U.S. churches to be full at Easter, Trump is now calling for the economy to be reopened in May. He has sided with extreme libertarians protesting social distancing measures, recently tweeting calls to “liberate” several states under Democratic governors who have imposed such measures.

Governors, usually Democrats, but also including some proactive Republicans, have had to form their own working groups to develop solutions among themselves in the absence of effective presidential leadership.

Nonetheless, there have been federal seizures of personal protective equipment (PPE) destined for Democratic-led states, and states have had to engage in bidding wars against each other to procure lifesaving equipment. There is no real national procurement strategy and Trump insists that governors need to find their own PPE on the open market. Trump has hinted that governors who praise him are more likely to receive federal cooperation.

Unlike Canada, where the fight against Covid-19 is not highly politicized, in the U.S. there are major differences in attitudes about the pandemic between Democrats and Republicans. This divide is exacerbated by Fox News, which like Trump, first downplayed the threat of the virus and then began promoting unproven “miracle” cures.

U.S. polling and studies have shown that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to engage in measures such as frequent hand washing, social distancing, buying hand sanitizer or self isolating. And Democrats are more supportive of stronger policies to slow the spread of the virus.

This March 31 CBC story, “Partisan divisions on Covid-19 exist in Canada but they’re deeper — and more dangerous — in the U.S.,” compares polling in Canada and the U.S.

Trump’s call to quickly reopen the U.S. economy in May has alarmed health experts who say the conditions aren’t ready. Even business leaders are urging caution, fearful that efforts to restart the economy too soon could result in a second wave of infection. Recently Trump has been walking back his claim that he has “absolute” authority to force governors to lift social distancing measures.

The usually unstated downside to reopening too soon is that thousands more will die. Fox talk show personality Dr. Mehmet Oz last week acknowledged there was a “trade-off” in lost lives and that opening of schools “may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality.” He had to walk back his candor.

For now, the border remains closed to non-essential traffic. And Canada and the U.S. will continue their very different approaches to the pandemic – one based on public health and saving lives; the other based on the presidential election cycle.

Author: Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is an Osoyoos photographer who worked at the Osoyoos Times between 2012 and 2018, first as reporter and then as editor. He has a long career in journalism as well as research, communication and management at the House of Commons in Ottawa and in the federal government.

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