The candidates at last week’s vice presidential debate ducked most of the questions posed by moderator Susan Page, which, while unsurprising, is unfortunate. Some of those questions deserve exploration.
One example: Why is the U.S. death rate for COVID-19 higher than most other developed nations? Page cited the one closest to hand – “For instance, our death rate is two and a half times that of Canada, next door” – when she asked Vice President Mike Pence about the administration’s pandemic control record.
Pence launched into a well-rehearsed defense of the work of President Donald Trump and his coronavirus task force, which Pence leads. But he did not talk about Canada. If he had, he could have noted some differences that put America’s experience in a different light than Page’s question implied.
Canada resembles the United States in much the same way that Kansas resembles California. Yes, we have many features in common. But there are some big differences in geography that, in turn, make a big difference in this pandemic.
Researchers are pretty certain that the new coronavirus reached the United States much earlier last winter, and continued to arrive from far more places, than we once believed. Travelers brought different strains to this country at least as early as January from China, but also from Europe and maybe elsewhere. With testing initially nonexistent and then severely limited until March, the virus moved undetected and mainly unsuspected for weeks, if not months.
The virus circulates most readily in close quarters. Canada has barely one-tenth the population of the United States, spread across a much larger land area. Social distancing is largely built in for much of the country. The metropolitan areas of New York City and Los Angeles together hold a population nearly equal to all of Canada’s. Our northern neighbor has six metropolitan areas with 1 million people or more. Toronto, the largest, has about 6.5 million. America has 53 metro areas above the 1 million mark – Fresno, California, barely misses the cut – and New York City’s region has three times as many inhabitants as Toronto’s. Before the pandemic, New York’s subway carried more than three times as many daily riders as Toronto’s, the larger of Canada’s two underground transit systems. (Montreal has the other; Vancouver has a surface and elevated light rail.)
Months after the height of their respective crises have passed, New York and New Jersey still account for nearly a quarter of all the deaths the United States has experienced.
Canada has international travel too, of course – but it is not a major destination for discretionary travel in the winter months, despite some world-class skiing in its West. New York City is (or was) a big draw all year for tourists and business travelers alike. Canadians themselves flock south of the border in the winter, especially to Florida and Arizona.
The virus may well have reached Canada around the same time as the United States. But it would not have had nearly as much opportunity to circulate as far and as fast within the country once it did. That delay bought Canada precious time to see what happened here and in Europe, and to avoid an early disaster like those experienced in Italy, Spain and New York.
Canadians deserve a lot of credit, too, for making their own good luck. They closed their international borders to most travelers when we did, which has kept us from being a major source of reinfection for them. They continue to discourage all their citizens from any foreign travel. They even discourage and restrict travel between provinces. Most Canadians have far fewer occasions to cross provincial lines than Americans to cross state lines (especially in certain parts of the country). The four Atlantic provinces joined in a regional bubble, with almost everyone coming “from away” having to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Distance, weather and mountain barriers discourage interprovincial travel elsewhere.
With much less spread within the general population, COVID-19 has had a ghastly concentration in Canada’s nursing homes, where upward of 80% of the country’s fatalities had occurred as of late May. Our nursing homes took a heavy hit as well, but not nearly to that extent. Our virus circulates more widely in the general population, which is more mobile than Canada’s.
Credit Canadians, also, with being a generally compliant citizenry. They have their own anti-maskers but, it seems, not nearly as many as here. And their leadership has not been inconsistent and unenthusiastic about the importance of face coverings.
Meanwhile, if you are awaiting a Canadian-developed vaccine or immunotherapy for COVID-19, you are bound to be disappointed. If the U.S. administration deserves blame for shortfalls in messaging, testing and distribution of protective gear, it also deserves credit for mobilizing the biggest blitz of communicable disease science the world has ever seen.
Our northern neighbor may merit better grades than we do for its pandemic response, but those grades do not belong on the same curve. Canada does not have as much in common with America as our long common border might imply.