Earlier this year David Frum, the Canadian-born Washington-based author, crossed the border to Canada for his summer vacation. He was quizzed by masked Canadian immigration officers about how he planned to handle the logistics of his 14-day quarantine. Over the next fortnight he received a series of motivational robocalls, live telephone calls and texts from the Canadian health authorities to monitor his compliance. They even offered to deliver his family’s groceries.
When he returned to the US a few weeks later, American customs and immigration officers were not wearing masks and asked him to remove his. The officers then cross-examined him about marijuana, cash, weapons — anything but coronavirus. It was as if the pandemic was not happening. They appeared to be unaware of why Canada had closed its borders to American travellers since March (there is little chance of that being lifted soon). Here, in miniature, was a tale of two very different governance systems.
Here is another. On Monday my former colleague Chrystia Freeland, deputy prime minister of Canada, unveiled C$100bn (about $78bn) of new fiscal ammunition to help the country’s post-pandemic recovery. The relief would fluctuate according to Canada’s economic growth rate; if growth overshot, support would be withdrawn, and vice versa.
When I saw the outlines of Freeland’s fiscal statement, I thought there must be something wrong. It sounded far too rational — as if Jay Powell, the US Federal Reserve chairman, had taken charge of the public finances north of the border. Freeland even used the same language as Powell — that the danger of doing too little greatly exceeded the danger of doing too much. In Washington, however, Powell’s urgings seem to fall on deaf ears. The chances Capitol Hill will pass an appropriately-sized relief bill in the next two months are slim. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is adamant that Washington will not “bail out” Democratic-run states and cities. This is in spite of the fact that America’s highest infection and death rates are now in Republican-run mostly rural states, such as South Dakota and Iowa.
Which leads into a third difference. Canada, for the most part, has kept its schools open during its lockdowns while closing bars and restaurants. That is because Ottawa has been funnelling enough revenue to keep most businesses afloat. In the US, for the most part, it has been the opposite. Canada wins on this count too. Businesses can be reimbursed for lost revenues. Children cannot make up for the cognitive damage of so much lost education. That applies less to kids like my daughter, whose parents work from home and who can look over her shoulder. But for millions of American children, Zoom schooling is just a posh term for licensed truancy.
Many don’t have good enough WiFi or the private space to focus on classes. For months science has made it clear that children are likelier to contract Covid-19 out of school than in. Moreover, their vulnerability to petty crime, teenage pregnancies and depression increases sharply when schools close. Yet America keeps giving priority to its bars, restaurants, gyms and tattoo parlours over its schools. Why? Because state and local governments do not have the money to pay service-providers to shutter. Moreover, in contrast to the heavily unionised teaching staff at public schools, most American service workers do not belong to a union.
Schools are lobbying to stay closed. Restaurant and bar associations are lobbying to stay open. This results in some absurd regulations, as set out in this excellent Atlantic piece by Amanda Mull. No more than six people could gather in private homes over Thanksgiving in many US cities. Yet restaurants could seat as many as 50 people indoors. Schools must stay empty. The Gods are conspiring to exacerbate America’s pandemic crisis and damage its children’s post-pandemic future. Actually, make that Mitch McConnell.
A final point. Canada also has some wacko populist politicians. But they have called a ceasefire when it comes to the pandemic. Doug Ford, the highly colourful conservative premier of the province of Ontario, described people who were protesting in Toronto against social distancing restrictions in as “a bunch of yahoos” who were “irresponsible, reckless and selfish”. This was from the man they used to call “Canada’s Trump”. Little wonder that the US is now losing as many people to Covid-19 every week as Canada has lost in total (approaching 13,000).
Rana, I know Canada has a reputation for dullness but it sounds kind of interesting nowadays. Do you think we can learn something from its people?
Ed, We can indeed learn from the Canadians, but we can also learn plenty from certain US states, such as New York. The story you share reminds me very much of my own experience coming back from Chicago to New York City after dropping my daughter at college in December.
Andrew Cuomo, New York governor, had just put Illinois on the state’s quarantine and contact tracing list. When I landed in New York, I was greeted by pleasant and efficient Department of Homeland Security staff who took my details and informed me that I needed to stay in my home for 14 days and be tested on day five if possible. I received calls from the state authorities daily, and was offered a free hotel room if I couldn’t be socially distant from my family. I felt quite reassured about living in a well-governed state. Chicago felt like a bit of a hot mess comparatively. Although not as bad as South Dakota where my brother lives. He tells me tests are still unavailable for those without full-blown symptoms.
As an aside, I’m reminded by your piece (though certainly not your writing) on The New Republic’s most boring headline contest many years ago. The winner was “Worthwhile Canadian initiative.”
What's next for US foreign policy? On December 11 join Peter Spiegel, the FT’s US managing editor, Katrina Manson, US foreign policy and defence correspondent, and Demetri Sevastopulo, Washington bureau chief, for the next event in our New Economic Reality series. Register here.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘The Dream Team at the Treasury’:
“Where exactly do US senators and Congress members come in the vaccine queue? I’m wondering about the Trump enablers in particular — the spineless men and women who stood unflinchingly by their man as he downplayed the existence and seriousness of the pandemic, all through spring and summer. Once their own personal wellbeing is on the line, will they jump the queue quietly (or loudly, harrumphing about their government responsibilities . . .), or step back and let frontline healthcare teams and essential workers go first? (Mind you, the “priority to over-70s” could wave most of them through in any case.)” — Chris Durban, Paris, France