Canada and COVID-19: June to mid-July 2020

In previous blogs, I tried to convey how, until the beginning of March, I had failed to take significant account of the dangers of the pandemic, but many, including several of my children, did not make that mistake. It flashed through my mind that when Noah was warned by God about the impending flood, he too was torn on whether the flood would indeed become a reality. Perhaps Noah’s children were the ones who convinced their father of the imminent danger.

It is not clear why some people believe while others distrust such warnings. Apocalyptic believers are seen to be true believers and conspiracy theorists while skeptics are very wary, but, in the case of the pandemic, the positions are reversed. Skeptics trust science and true believers trust QAnon or another dark and extremely skeptical source on the internet. Donald Trump is the lead destroyer of trust in science. In mid-July he ordered all hospitals to send their data on coronavirus to the White House instead of to CDC, insisting the administration would provide a “new faster and complete data system.” Why don’t I believe him?

One of the explanations of the “go slow” and cautious approach to moving forward with centralized organizing and enforcing preventive measures is that people may have an inborn (and, perhaps, healthy) tendency towards skepticism, at the very least about the severity of the upcoming disaster if not its actual arrival. Further, the very success of countries like Taiwan, Vietnam and even South Korea may have lulled people into complacency. On the other hand, when infections rose again in South Korea at the beginning of May following an ease of restrictions, many took away the wrong lesson – there was little benefit in introducing very strict measures. At the same time, this skepticism of government initiatives was not balanced but reinforced by true believers of the conspiracy theorist disposition who initially considered the plague to be a myth spread by the Left. When they could no longer deny the reality of the epidemic, they then interpreted it as a deliberate plot of the Left to bring down the Trump presidency.

Denial may also be reinforced because we fear dying alone. The news on COVID-19 was that patients died without being surrounded by loved ones. This fear and other factors tend to deform our objectivity, our analyses and also our ability to take action based on perceptions. We easily fail to take note of these anonymous sufferers and even their deaths.

A 50-year-old man from Chicago suburbia, whose death occurred in mid-April, was not discovered until the first week in May. This also happened to a man in Hawthorne, California who actually died at the end of March. Both had worked at an Amazon warehouse as part of the myriad of anonymous low-paid and evidently disposable worker bees in great demand as Amazon had been stimulated by the COVID-19 stay-at-home society to expand tremendously to deal with the rising consumer demand for delivered goods. Further, the disease became easier to spread in the more crowded working conditions. Half the workers in a picture of an Amazon warehouse at the time were not wearing masks. Amazon Vice-President Tim Bray evidently resigned over the issue of lack of protection for workers.

The Amazon rapid expansion was but the forward movement of the pressure to re-open the North American economy as quickly as possible, significantly more pronounced in America with its fewer protections, limited expansion of benefits for employees detrimentally affected by the pandemic, and widespread distrust of government providing a security blanket for its citizens. In Ohio, for example, employees who stayed away from work because of fear of contracting COVID-19 were denied unemployment benefits. In Canada, though a general consensus gradually congealed, and a Globe and Mail investigation published in July confirmed, the slow initial response was, in part, attributed to the fact that “Canada didn’t have a unified response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the effort was siloed as each province brought its own approach, leading to scattered and slow responses.” However, that same slowness and caution were of benefit in the re-opening phases.

Another factor pushing denial was false memory by the survivors of the sixties. In 1968, a flu epidemic (H3N2) led to 100,000 deaths in the U.S., mostly older people and more than died in the Korean and Vietnam wars together. The epidemic raged through Woodstock, hitting young people there in significant numbers. Yet there was no general panic or particular stress on putting in place significant steps, other than washing hands more regularly and thoroughly to prevent the spread of the flu. Friends of mine attended a Grateful Dead concert. The reason for the laxity at the end of the sixties was obvious even though the decade was noted for expanding the role of a caring government. COVID-19 was ten times more lethal than the 1968 flu with a mortality rate on average of 1% versus 0.1% for the flu.

In the face of this widespread denial, by 3 May, though infection rates were still increasing in the U.S., 32 states initiated reopening plans. As new cases rose each day to new records – 67,000 on 15 July – the decisions to re-open were clearly rash. However, it is unlikely they were influenced by the alternate strategy Sweden used, namely to allow the disease the spread naturally until herd immunity was obtained. The reason would not have been because Sweden had 3,250 deaths, most over 70 years of age, compared to Norway’s 400. For in reopening, many of the states such as Florida never did enforce social distancing as Sweden did. At the same time, Florida closed schools, which Sweden did not, and reopening schools was not part of the initial phases of reversing the very disruptive lockdown. Further, in Sweden large gatherings were restricted to fifty people whereas Florida permitted very large numbers to gather on some of its beaches. Canada, in contrast to both Sweden and the majority of American states was very cautious in initiating Phase I of its re-opening program.

Contrast that with the case of Russia which by the third week of May had the second-fastest rate of new infections of any country on the globe – 220,000 cases altogether, though only 2,000 deaths by the third week of May. Only America and perhaps Spain were ahead of the Russians in total cases. Putin, like Trump, lied. “The situation on the whole is under control…Russia looks much better compared with other countries.” Canadians did not believe either Trump or Putin; 81% supported keeping the Canadian-American border closed.

Canadian leaders at all levels did not lie to their citizens. They told it as they saw it and were advised by scientists. They erred on the side of caution when caution was the wrong side, but they did not slip into false advertising. On 12 June, child centres across Ontario were allowed to reopen, but only so long as certain conditions were observed, such as limiting occupancy rates in a “defined space” to ten, staff and children included. Opposition parties criticized government leaders for not being cautious enough, not consulting sufficiently and not providing adequate funding, especially paid sick leave and support for child care. 

These criticisms were mild. Politicians retained the trust of the population even though the trend lines were terrible. This enhanced their support even though their positive results were tepid. In contrast, in South Korea and Germany President Mon Jae-in and Angela Merkel reversed their falling support by providing imaginative, forceful and rapid leadership in combating COVID-19. Russia went in a different direction and began re-opening its economy when infection rates were still going up. Putin’s popularity began to noticeably drop. Russia seemed to be trying to keep up with the USA in the submission of the country to the disease.

What Canada and the United States lacked by the end of May was a comprehensive testing and tracing program. It took until mid-July for Canada to appoint Les Linklater, a former associate deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement, to oversee federal COVID-19 testing and tracing. Tracing was probably impossible in the U.S. because there were so many contacts for each infected person. But Canada’s restrictions remained in place in most areas of the country and comprehensive tracing as well as testing could have been in place much earlier. Contact-tracing or contact-notification mobile apps could also have been adopted as in a number of Asian countries. However, nowhere did we encounter what Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania did – widespread refusal of the population to follow state guidelines and even regulations. In contrast, China, more specifically, Wuhan, was testing millions of citizens per week. Further, unlike Russia or China without any real political opposition, or America with deep-seated animosity between Republicans and Democrats, in Canada, political leaders of all stripes by and large cooperated whatever their differences.

Another dimension emerged in May that explained in part Canada’s tardiness in fighting the COVID-19 crisis. For the first three months of the year, the virus was not seen as a crisis. StatsCan reported that, “Only three provinces registered more deaths than for the same period in 2019: Alberta (374 deaths), the Northwest Territories (5) and Prince Edward Island (2). And Prince Edward Island never had any COVID-19 deaths. (For a more in-depth discussion on facts and figures during a pandemic, see the record on line of the conversation between the Governor General and StatsCan officials near the end of June.)

One initiative Canada took, like virtually all other countries, was limiting travel to Canada. COVID-19 inaugurated the new age of low mobility. At first even Canadians could not return with their families if their wives and children were not Canadian citizens. Canada changed this policy, but did not lift a number of other restrictions that would allow travel, especially interprovincial travel, to move towards normalcy. However, other steps were taken concerning health screenings and compulsory wearing of masks. (Quebec in mid-July made mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces but placing the onus of enforcement on businesses.) These steps were not by and large perceived as an infringement on civil liberties.

Canada has not yet introduced immunity passports. Nor have airports increased their digitalized and automated check-ins and recognition software to facilitate touchless border crossings and contactless baggage checks. Airlines temporarily left middle seats vacant, but this step was abandoned fairly quickly during this period in response to economic pressures and an increase in cross-Canada air travel. By 9 July, Air Canada, WestJet and American Airlines all announced that they would no longer keep middle seats empty to enable physical distancing on their aircraft claiming that screening before boarding, the compulsory wearing of masks and the installation of HEPA air filters on aircraft were sufficient.

Canadians and government officials learned far more than lessons for mitigating contact and spread. For one, the fear of large deficits had evaporated. Ottawa projected a $343.2 billion deficit. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Canadians wanted the various levels of government to spend whatever was necessary to re-open and rebuild the economy. Canadians learned that their long-term care practices needed radical revision. Further, most Canadians wanted a political and economic program that would bring not only economic recovery but increased support (75%) for a reduction in inequality, especially by imposing a wealth tax of 1-2% of the assets of the rich. Canadians generally supported emergency business aid, wage subsidies and promotion of work-sharing, a regional relief and recovery fund and support for Ritual ONE, providing restaurants and food service providers with monies to transform their businesses to pick-up, expanding patios and decreased in-house patronage.

Canada had another benefit. Though Canadians participated in the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the numbers generally were not as large or the protests so sustained that the spread of the virus was significantly enhanced. Canadian protesters wore masks in larger numbers, and not only when threatened by tear gas. Police tactics and arrests, in turn, did not enhance the spread in Canada. By the beginning of July, the infection rates in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California, not to mention Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina, were rapidly increasing while they were declining across Canada, even in the epicenters in Toronto and Montreal. And the numbers were not going up, as Donald Trump claimed, because America was testing so much.

Even if the American system was infected with a widespread virus of misstatements and lies, led by the president, there was also confusion because of the lack of uniformity in collecting statistics and determining who actually died from the virus rather than another cause, or counting only deaths in hospitals, unreliable and sporadic testing until late in the spread of the disease, year-over-year comparisons of deaths when, because of the lockdown, homicides and accidental deaths significantly decreased. In spite of these confusions, Canadians generally continued to trust their governments and the leaders. At the beginning of July, “An overwhelming 76% say Canada’s public institutions responded well to the pandemic.” There has been no deliberate effort to conceal the ravages of the pandemic as there were in states like Georgia and Nebraska. We may have experienced undercounting and inadequate data collection but not outright deception.

By mid-June, the trend lines were clear. New cases of COVID-19 continued to decline. Death rates fell as did rates of hospitalization. Guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing, wearing masks inside and keeping bubbles to under ten were generally but not universally followed; 1 in 4 Canadians refused to wear masks unless compelled to do so. Other than the major cities – Toronto and Montreal and Windsor along the American border – phase 2 re-openings were initiated. Some initiatives were very questionable. In Ontario, the government introduced legislation to protect owners of long-term care facilities from liability. Pandemic bonuses were ended. However, by the end of June, the Canadian economy recorded 952,900 additional jobs over the previous month. Nevertheless, the Canadian economy was projected to contract by 7.8%.

Canada had not only been deficient in its policies towards long-term care facilities where 81% of the Canadian deaths from the virus occurred, we did a poor job in protecting guest workers from Mexico working on farms. As a Globe and Mail investigation published in July confirmed, the government accepted three-year-old housing plans when farms sponsored guest workers and stopped conducting housing inspections for six weeks at the outset of the COVID-119 crisis. Complaints were not dealt with in a timely fashion or, in most cases, with proper investigations. In Ontario, more than 1,000 migrant farm workers  contracted COVID-19; three men from Mexico died.

Canada was to be commended for its caution but not its preparedness. Independent Senator Chantal Petitclerc, who chairs the Senate Social Affairs and Science Committee, released a preliminary report highlighting areas in which governments have much groundwork left to cover in mitigating future outbreaks. However, Canada never deteriorated to the base level of the United States in mid-July when the President systematically set out to undercut his top scientist on epidemic control, Dr. Fauci, decried the media for lying about the pandemic and generally derided nay-sayers in favour of an illusionary optimism declared in opposition to all the American data. POTUS even cited a game show host as a supreme authority on the status of the pandemic.


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