One Continent, Two Very Different Political Responses to the Pandemic


Shortly after I finished my previous Canada Letter, the country’s coronavirus count topped a symbolic 1,000 cases and 12 people had died. A week later and Ontario alone is now nearing the 1,000-case mark, while nationally confirmed cases have topped 4,000, with 39 deaths.

ImageA hockey rink in Ottawa that is now serving as a coronavirus testing center.
Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

Several Canada Letter readers have suggested that we compare Canada and the United States in terms of how they are handling the crisis and their preparation for it. But after I started asking around, it became apparent that the regional differences in both nations make such an assessment impractical, at least in a digestible form.

Compounding that is the rapidly shifting nature of the crisis. It’s not without anxiety for my colleagues that I’ve been watching New York’s rapid evolution into an epicenter of the outbreak. The week began with the heartbreaking news that one such colleague, Alan Finder, was a victim of coronavirus.

If you’ve not viewed it, make sure you watch the harrowing video by Robin Stein and Caroline Kim in which Dr. Colleen Smith, an emergency room doctor, takes viewers inside Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, the epicenter of the epicenter.

[Watch: ‘People Are Dying’: 72 Hours Inside a N.Y.C. Hospital Battling Coronavirus]

A reminder to spread the word that all of The Times’s coronavirus coverage can be viewed free of charge and can be found here.

The political response to the crisis in Canada and the United States has, of course, been drastically different. Partisan and regional grievances have been set aside here with leaders both federally and provincially calling on Canadians to hunker down to contain the spread of the virus. Without exception they also have consistently deferred to physicians, scientists and public health experts to inform Canada’s approach.

No Canadian leader from any party or province is echoing President Trump’s forecast of a return to normal by Easter, an assessment widely rejected by experts.

Certainly there was an unexpected delay when a scaled-down version of Parliament met to approve a variety of emergency health and economic measures. But, unlike the situation in Washington, it was resolved quickly and the dispute was over the government’s taxing and spending powers, not the need to quickly get money to Canadians and Canadian businesses while also stabilizing the financial system.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was still working in self-isolation from Rideau Cottage, the residence on the grounds of the governor general’s estate, currently serving as his official residence, because Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has tested positive for the virus. Catherine Porter and I looked into how he’s running the country while also serving as his family’s caregiver.

[Read: Justin Trudeau in Home Isolation: ‘Daddy’s on an Important Phone Call’]

And Dan Bilefsky, our Montreal-based colleague, teamed with Ceylan Yeginsu in London to look at the transformations, good and bad, that the global epidemic has brought to relationships, dating and sex.

[Read: Of ‘Covidivorces’ and ‘Coronababies’: Life During a Lockdown]

As the number of cases is expected to rise over the coming days and likely weeks in Canada, the messages from government about medical equipment and protective gear like face masks have been somewhat mixed.

In the absence of proven drug treatments, ventilators have become lifesaving devices. And Canada, like most of the world, is in a rush to purchase or manufacture more of the machines. The special legislation passed by the quick parliamentary sitting gave the government the power to take away patents to get vital medical equipment and supplies into production. Currently, all of Canada’s ventilators come from the United States or Europe.

On Friday, three of Canada’s largest auto parts makers announced that they would help manufacture 10,000 ventilators that the province of Ontario is trying to buy. That followed earlier announcements by major carmakers about partnerships with medical supply companies to build the much-needed ventilators.

In many ways, it feels like World War II, when auto assembly lines were turned over to the production of machine guns, shells and a vast array of other weapons. But Andrew Jacobs, Neal E. Boudette, Matt Richtel and Nicholas Kulish reported this week that it might be another thing to actually carry out those plans in a timely way.

“It’s not like making a sedan or S.U.V.,” an adviser to the United States Food and Drug Administration said. “Sounds good as a sound bite, but the practicalities may be very difficult.”

[Read: Amid Desperate Need for Ventilators, Calls Grow for Federal Intervention]

The move by Bauer, the hockey equipment maker, to use its visor expertise to produce medical face shields in Quebec seems like a more practical plan.

Canada’s federal government and most provincial governments said this week that they had enough personal protective equipment either on hand or on the way. But staff members at some hospitals have been told to ration things like gloves and masks.

I know from touring their operations that the marijuana industry has mountains of such stuff to avoid contaminating their plants and products. Canopy Growth told me that it had donated the protective gear from recently closed facilities in British Columbia to public health officials in Victoria. It also sent some masks to the police force in Smiths Falls, Ontario, the company’s hometown. Tilray, another grower donated to a hospital in Ontario.

Medical students in several cities including Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal have started efforts to round up masks and other supplies from construction companies, dental clinics, nail salons and a range of other businesses.

Ethan Lin, a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa, told me that the group he was involved with created a list of 1,000 companies in Ottawa and began cold calling them for donations. A single nail salon produced 300 surgical masks, another one donated 2,000 gloves. As of Thursday, Mr. Lin and his classmates had collected about 3,000 surgical masks and more than 60,000 gloves, with more coming in.

“There are a lot of different people coming together,” he said.


For families with members who shuttle back and forth between Canada and China, there can be a wide range of stresses, and their situation has been made worse by travel restrictions from the current pandemic. But, as Dan Bilefsky found, growing up in an “astronaut family” pulled between two continents also has its advantages.

[Read: ‘Astronaut’ Families Stressed by Straddling 2 Worlds: China and Canada]

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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