A vaccination clinic in Toronto. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
A vaccination clinic in Toronto. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

PoliticsApril 23, 2021

What’s gone wrong in Canada

A vaccination clinic in Toronto. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
A vaccination clinic in Toronto. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A year ago, Justin Giovannetti left Canada to join his fiancée (and The Spinoff) in New Zealand. Today, his home country is confronting another debilitating wave of Covid-19.

In the year since I left Canada I’ve been asked if I miss home. I don’t, and the reason is simple: The home I’d miss doesn’t exist right now. My friends are in lockdown, my family is under curfew, my favourite café is behind plywood. It will come back, but it could take some time.

Canada is in the midst of a third wave of Covid-19 that’s as bad as anything the country has faced before. Fuelled by the rapid spread of highly infectious variants and a lacklustre vaccination programme, the country’s number of daily cases surpassed the US on a per capita basis two weeks ago and has grown worse.

The 49th parallel separating the two North American countries has become a testament to the power of the vaccine. To the south, Americans seem to be slowly returning to normal as every adult in the country is now eligible for a jab. To the north, variants are infecting faster than shots are getting into arms.

When it seemed like there might be light at the end of the tunnel globally in the fight against Covid-19, the health care system in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, went into meltdown last week. ICUs failed to deal with a growing tide of cases. Public health experts hailed as heroes last year are now under police protection. Some of the country’s governments have responded to disaster with orders that have left both experts and the population baffled and angry.

One of the most striking anecdotes I heard this past week was from the city of Calgary, which has about the same population of Auckland. The school board asked the government to require remote learning because so many of its teachers were sick or in isolation that it could no longer staff its schools.

It’s been difficult to speak with friends and family entering their 13th month of working from home and keeping to small bubbles, while simultaneously watching the national situation disintegrate. My father lives alone and is retired, I have absolutely no clue how he’s managed this long other than the recent return of professional ice hockey played in front of cardboard crowds. It was a long and dark winter.

Canada reported more than 10,653 new cases on Monday. In total there’s been about 1.15 million cases of Covid-19 and 23,763 deaths — both numbers are growing steadily by the day.

The country’s first wave peaked last May at about a quarter of today’s totals — that’s when New Zealand was in level four lockdown. The second wave around Christmas was about as bad as today, before declining rapidly as strict public health measures took effect. Those controls were relaxed in early March despite repeated warnings of public health experts that disaster would ensue. In less than a month, the third wave slammed home.

To get a better sense of how this happened, I spoke with public policy expert Heidi Tworek from the University of British Columbia. Like many around the world she’s watched press conferences from prime minister Jacinda Ardern and sighed at the level of clarity in New Zealand’s response.

Part of the recent surge in cases as stemmed from the way Canada is governed, she pointed out. The country is divided into 10 powerful provinces. Health care falls within the provincial area of responsibility, meaning the country has had 10 different responses to Covid-19. Some have been strikingly more effective than others.

Constitutionally, prime minister Justin Trudeau’s main job has been to write cheques to provincial leaders and buy vaccines from overseas. He’s succeeded at the first task, with the budget still at second-world-war-levels of deficit for a second year. On the second, delays, missteps and changing science has led to bickering and recrimination between Trudeau and conservative provincial leaders.

“It’s always hard to give you one sense of how Canada’s doing, every province is doing its own thing. That’s one of the tales of Canada. It’s like an experiment in one country, where the Atlantic provinces have a travel bubble and are trying a covid-zero strategy, while Ontario is standing out now for pursuing some policies that aren’t based on the science of how Covid spreads,” said Tworek.

Heidi Tworek

It’s hard to overstate the lack of a national response. There are multiple Covid-19 apps that don’t work in different areas, as well as different definitions and terms for restrictions in each province. From afar it’s a bewildering assortment of colour codes, levels and recommendations from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The biggest factor behind this third wave, according to Tworek, is an inability on the part of politicians to look at Europe earlier this year and understand that the variants they were seeing there was Canada’s future. In some ways it echoed the start of the pandemic: The variants were overseas, then a few cases arrived, then outbreaks followed and finally governments reacted.

One of the relative successes of the first year of Covid-19 was British Columbia, where cases were kept low and the provincial government followed the science. Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry became a daily face on TV screens in Vancouver as politicians took a back seat. She became a mixture of Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield, with both the clear advice and the kindness.

“In BC you have an admired chief medical officer and a real success story, but since November onwards it’s been a different story. Henry had looked back at the first wave and said she wished she’d acted sooner. We’re in a third wave and we now see a cascade of choices that are being made that should have probably been made a while ago,” Tworek explained.

Earlier this year there were several large outbreaks in mountain resort towns populated by young Australians. It’s likely that more Australians had Covid-19 in Canada earlier this year than in Australia.

However, it’s the country’s richest and largest province, Ontario, that has seen its fortunes fall apart most quickly. Much of it is being blamed on premier Doug Ford, a conservative with a populist streak that some have compared to Donald Trump. After seeing his popularity shoot up last year, Ford is now facing calls for his resignation.

After relaxing restrictions a month ago despite public warnings from his chief public health officer, Ford then responded to a surge in cases by shutting playgrounds and ordering police to conduct random spot checks. He didn’t order a lockdown or a closure of nonessential businesses. After a weekend of outrage, including police who said they wouldn’t follow the order, Ford backtracked.

“It’s an extraordinary story that a year into a pandemic you’ve got a leader who isn’t following what experts are telling him what to do. There’s still no paid sick leave and no real attention being paid to warehouses and other businesses that have seen cases,” said Tworek.

The country has now placed its hopes on a rush of new vaccine deliveries in the next few months. There could be good news ahead. My parents and many former colleagues have received their first jab in recent days. Every morning I open up Instagram to pictures of beaming masked faces and thumbs up. There’s no lack of people willing to roll up their sleeves.

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