I reached the Canadian border on the Fourth of July.
Usually, the Thousand Islands crossing station between New York and Ontario is busy on summer weekends. Not this time. Eight of the nine lanes were closed, and only one car waited ahead of me in the single open queue.
Despite the light traffic, I waited a while for my inspection—and when it was my turn, the car behind me waited a while too. In mask and gloves, an official inspected my Canadian birth certificate, asked whether I was transporting any weapons, then probed my plans for the 14 days of self-isolation required after entering Canada.
What would I do for groceries?
How would I walk my two dogs on the trip?
Did I understand Ontario’s masking rules?
At what phone number could I be reached during my self-isolation?
Over the next two weeks, that number would receive texts, robocalls, and a live call from Canadian health services. The robocalls delivered motivational messages. They thanked me for keeping Canada safe. After the midpoint of the isolation, they cheerfully ticked off the remaining days: Only four to go! Only three! Only two! The live calls—my wife and I each got one—focused more on our well-being. Did we have enough food? Were we lonely or depressed? Did we need anyone to deliver anything to us? (I’m pleased to report that the caller I spoke with was a reader of The Atlantic.)
Outside of Toronto, businesses are reopening in Ontario. My wife and I celebrated the end of quarantine by going out to dinner at a local restaurant. The tables were spaced more widely than before. Paper menus had vanished, probably never to return. Servers were masked. Otherwise, though, things seemed … almost normal. We asked the chef—an old friend—how things had gone for him and his family during the lockdown. Not too bad, he answered. Aid from the government had supported the business and kept him on the payroll. He was optimistic that school would reopen in September.
The next morning, I had a meeting at the local hotel. A checkpoint had been placed in the parking lot. My temperature was taken before I could enter the building. After my meeting, I ran some of the errands that had accumulated during our 14 days in quarantine. People wore masks in all interior spaces, and often outdoors, too. I asked a clerk at the town supermarket whether the requirement had caused any trouble. She seemed surprised by the question: “It says so right on the door.”
I picked up a case of wine at a local vineyard. The owner told me that she’d had scarcely any stop-by customers in the entire month of June. Fortunately, business was recovering so fast in July that she felt confident she would hit her sales target by the end of the season. Two full cars stopped at her tasting room during the time it took me to complete my purchase. Since she allows only four people in the room at a time, they waited outside for their turns.
North of the border, the disease is abating. Canada has steadily gained ground against the virus, even as the United States has surrendered to it.
In the first months of the year, the trajectory of the disease in Canada approximately tracked the trajectory in the United States. Then, in early summer, the two countries’ experiences began to radically diverge.
At the end of April, the United States was reporting new cases at a rate—relative to population—approximately double Canada’s. That was only 12 weeks ago. On July 22, the United States reported new cases at a rate 14 times Canada’s.
In raw terms: On July 22, the 37.5 million people of Canada recorded 543 new coronavirus cases and eight fatalities. That same day, the 328 million people of the United States reported a staggering 69,730 new cases and 1,136 deaths.
When you arrive in Canada, you instantly understand the basic cause of the disparity.
It’s not the health-care system, exactly—although that has coped better, too. A close friend in Los Angeles combatting cancer this week began to experience COVID-19-like symptoms. Her cancer treatment had to pause while she awaited first a test (a two-day delay) then the results (God knows how long). Meanwhile, my two Canadian nephews took the precaution of a COVID-19 test before coming to visit us in the country. They got the test on a walk-in basis. The results arrived a few hours later: all clear.
Outside the hospitals and clinics, people in every walk of life are taking the disease seriously. They wear masks. They stand outside of stores. They don’t complain all the time about trivial inconveniences.
The politicians have behaved better, too. Canada has politics, same as everywhere else. I see those political divisions close up; my sister serves in the Canadian Parliament as a Conservative senator. The Liberal Trudeau government depicts its Conservative opponents as Trumpy bigots and barbarians. The Conservatives retort by highlighting the ethics troubles of the Trudeau government. The latest such trouble: Justin Trudeau apologized for not recusing himself before his government directed a C$900 million contract to a well-connected charity that had paid more than C$300,000 in speaking fees to the prime minister’s mother and brother.
But nobody has thought to make a political issue out of the science of fighting pandemics. Back in April, the Conservative premier of Ontario denounced people protesting social-distancing rules as “irresponsible, reckless, and selfish.” The Conservative premier of Alberta has distributed 40 million free masks in his 4.4-million-person province. Left, right, and center, Canadians wear coats when it gets cold. Left, right, and center, they wear masks during a pandemic spread by airborne droplets. It’s just not something to argue over.
Canada has made some serious policy mistakes, especially in the earliest days of the pandemic. The Trudeau government was notably reluctant to impose restrictions on travel to and from China, lest it appear “discriminatory.” The country did not restrict travel until mid-March, six weeks after the United States.
This mistake proved deadly to Canadians, but not primarily because of infection from China. This mistake proved deadly to Canadians because it exposed them to infection from the United States.
Canada has suffered 8,874 COVID-19 deaths as of July 24. A large majority of those deaths occurred in Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province. Quebec reported more than twice as many deaths as Ontario, despite a significantly smaller population. Why the difference?
The Quebec school break for 2020 began on February 29. That day, many Quebec families headed out on vacations—in particular, to New York and Florida. On March 1, Florida reported its first coronavirus cases. Mindful of the economic value of spring-break tourism, however, the state refused to take action. Not until March 17 did Governor Ron DeSantis order the closing of bars and restaurants. New York State didn’t declare an emergency until March 7; New York City, not until March 12—and restrictions on bars and restaurants didn’t go into effect until well after that. By then, vacationing Quebecers had long since returned home, perhaps carrying the infection with them.
Ontario, by good luck, had set its spring break to start on March 16—the same day that Canada belatedly began implementing travel restrictions. Ontario escaped more lightly.
But even unlucky Quebec has gotten its act together since March. On July 22, Quebec reported zero deaths from COVID-19. That same day, the state of Arizona, home to 1 million fewer people than the province of Quebec, reported 89 deaths.
Canada is not a star of the COVID-19 class. Per capita, it has suffered three times as many deaths from the disease as Australia and Germany. What the Canadian example does show, however, is what the United States could have looked like if the U.S. effort had not been led by malicious, self-seeking incompetents. Some Americans would still be getting sick; some would be dying. The disease would remain very much a problem to reckon with. But the worst would be over. Reopening schools would be feasible. Transit systems would not threaten the lives of their users. Economic recovery would have begun.
Instead, the Trump administration and Trump-swayed governors have turned a crisis into a catastrophe—a catastrophe that continues to get uniquely worse in the United States even as it ebbs almost everywhere else in the developed world. In retrospect, the most humiliating fact about the coronavirus pandemic was that under responsible leadership and with some moderate amount of social cohesion, it was a highly manageable threat. Within less than six months of the first cases, it became apparent what to do. Almost everybody else in the developed world then did it. Almost everybody else in the developed world is now collecting the benefits of having done it. Donald Trump, following the imperatives of his own ego, refused to do it. He then imposed that refusal on the federal government, and encouraged it in Republican-led states, as Fox News hosts and Facebook posters applauded.
It could have been otherwise. It still could be. But in July as in January, the biggest difference between the United States and the rest of the developed world is that the U.S. has the misfortune of having Donald Trump in charge.
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