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COMMENTARY: Canada’s coronavirus response has not been as great as we like to think

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wears a protective face mask as he attends a repatriation ceremony for the six Canadian Forces personnel killed in a military helicopter crash in the Mediterranean amid the coronavirus pandemic at Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., May 6, 2020.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wears a protective face mask as he attends a repatriation ceremony for the six Canadian Forces personnel killed in a military helicopter crash in the Mediterranean amid the coronavirus pandemic at Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., May 6, 2020. Frank Gunn/Pool via REUTERS

Judging by some polls, Canadians are happy with the way their leaders managed Canada’s response to COVID-19 or with how Ottawa, in particular, has doled out several hundred billion dollars of aid. Or both.

Canadians may regard their country’s response to the lethal virus as good, but the national death toll has surpassed 8,900. And there is statistical evidence aplenty to suggest that when compared with other countries, Canada’s performance is not exceptional. At best, it has been fair to middling.

However, as with so much else, Canada’s habitual fascination with the U.S. and its fixation on events there seems to be all many Canadians care about.

READ MORE: How Canada’s first long-term coronavirus pandemic projections hold up today

To gain a broader perspective, it might be helpful if Canadians were to crunch some of the numbers published daily on the beautifully presented, somewhat U.S.-centric dashboard run by the medical school at Johns Hopkins University or the dowdier, more internationally oriented Worldometers website, which is published out of Delaware.

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Canada ranks 23 in deaths and 63 in infections per capita among the 215 places tracked by Worldometers as of Aug. 1. That fares better than the U.K. (3 in deaths; 43 in infections) and the U.S. (10 for both), but also shows Canada has had less success than places such as Germany (40 in deaths; 74 in infections), Finland (62; 93), Poland (73; 97), Ukraine (79; 86), Japan (126; 157), Australia (127; 120), South Korea (137; 155), Malaysia (154; 156), New Zealand (158; 151), Thailand (178; 199), Taiwan (184; 205) and Vietnam (189; 212).

By every statistical measure, Canada has certainly done much better controlling the virus than the U.S. That has apparently been good enough for most Canadians who, according to public opinion surveys, think that their governments have been doing well and are optimistic about the recovery.

Many Canadians are aware that on a per capita basis, about 90 per cent more Americans have died than Canadians.

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Putting aside flattering comparisons with the U.S., Canada has got a lot wrong in its fight against the coronavirus.

Canada’s elder-care facilities are clearly far inferior to the often austere but rigorously clean and well-staffed homes for the aged in countries such as Finland and Norway. Official oversight of many of these institutions in Canada is much less robust.

READ MORE: Young people are causing COVID-19 spikes. But are they solely to blame?

Canada’s response to the pandemic has often been sluggish and confused. For several months, the federal government did not follow through on promises the prime minister had made that travellers would face serious questions about their health at our borders. Ottawa was also very slow to close those borders, made a hash of ensuring sufficient emergency supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks were available for essential workers and went back and forth for weeks about whether it was prudent for Canadians to wear masks when in public.

The federal and provincial governments did little at first to check whether Canadians returning from abroad were adhering to strict quarantine regulations. Compared with most Asian countries, it has had a woeful record in creating contact-tracing teams and contact-tracing apps.

While Canada’s death rate of 237 per 1 million residents is lower than the U.K. (679/1M) or the U.S. (473/1M), it’s pretty high relative to Germany (110/1M), Australia and Japan (8/1M each), to name a few. (This data is also from worldometers.info as of Aug. 1.)

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The same goes for infection rates. Canada has had 3,080 cases per 1 million residents, and while that’s lower than the U.K. (4,464/1M) or the U.S. (14,215/1M), our rate surpasses that of Germany (2,514/1M), Australia (677/1M) and Japan (272/1M).

Coronavirus infecting more young Canadians
Coronavirus infecting more young Canadians

As for testing for the virus, like the U.S. and European countries especially hard-hit by the deadly virus such as Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and the U.K., Canada got off to a feeble and confused start. On the positive side, much more testing has finally been done recently.

There is almost no information available to reliably measure the efficacy of the treasury-backed remedies being tried by the world’s advanced economies to mitigate the staggering financial cost of the pandemic. A scan of news reports from the U.S. and overseas reveal massive amounts of state aid is being forked out, but comparisons are complicated because the formulas and criteria to qualify for these funds vary widely.

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Some European countries, such as Germany, funnel the money through companies, which are then not allowed to lay their workers off. The Canadian approach has often been to hand money directly, with few questions asked, to people who’ve lost their jobs or are students.

Regarding Canada’s economic prospects this year, the International Monetary Fund published a forecast on June 25 that the country’s GDP would contract by 8.4 per cent in 2020, which is slightly worse than the 8.0 decrease that is expected for the U.S., and also the 8.0 per cent average contraction that is expected across all advanced economies.

That the IMF’s gloomy economic prognosis is worse for Canada than for the U.S. is unlikely to draw the same kind of attention that the higher American infection and death rates do. This may be because of the propensity of some Canadians to feel schadenfreude when the U.S. is on the ropes or because casting a much wider net would interfere with the dominant narrative that Ottawa has done a better job meeting the coronavirus challenge than Washington.

Those Canadians giving themselves a slap on the back for how their country has managed the COVID-19 calamity so far should instead be giving their heads a shake.

The much lower infection and death rates reported by many countries overseas and the informed guesses about the global economy in 2020 that have been made by the IMF are a stark reminder that Canadians should not compare themselves so much with their American neighbours.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.