As the world celebrated the end of 2020, I was not partying but alone in my room. The normally lively Nathan Phillips Square was void of civilians. A last-minute order forced every restaurant in Vancouver to stop selling alcohol, resulting in hundreds of cancellations. For epidemiologists, there was little to celebrate: the previous day, Canada had recorded 7,476 COVID-19 cases.
In Wuhan, China, though, thousands partied on the streets. And in New Zealand, barely a mask was in sight as crowds watched fireworks burst over the Auckland harbour. They celebrated not just the end of an unusually harsh year, but victory over the COVID-19 pandemic that defined it. Mainland China reported a mere 19 cases that day. New Zealand reported none at all.
How did these countries get to party while we were forced to stay home? The answer is aggressive and urgent government response—something our governments failed at implementing.
When China realized there was a pandemic on their hands, they acted immediately. Wuhan was placed under a 76-day lockdown, and drones reminded citizens to go home and put on masks. An elaborate network of contact tracing was implemented, and everyone entering the country was quarantined. This aggressive response allowed China to fight off the pandemic effectively.
Yet perhaps we can’t generalize this response to Canada. After all, China did know about the virus early, due to the first cases appearing there. The government has much more power in China than in Canada and is more capable of enacting sweeping change quickly. There are also significant cultural differences—China fought off SARS in the early 2000s, so there is additional awareness regarding these viruses.
Therefore, it might be better to compare Canada to a similar Commonwealth state: New Zealand. They had the same amount of warning as Canada, but instead of attempting to mitigate and suppress the damage, they aimed to eliminate the virus from the island altogether. In mid-March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed borders and locked the country down. Crucially, the government immediately enacted several measures to financially support those who lost their incomes during the crisis. These financial supports made sure that there was no reason for people to want to go outside. Nobody had to go to work and risk infection because the government was able to support them financially.
In comparison, what did Canada do? The federal government took until mid-April to pass an emergency response spending package into law. CERB support dried up by the end of September. Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in mid-March, but playgrounds and sports facilities stayed open until April 13, as if the virus would magically avoid those densely populated areas. Despite the continued presence of Covid-19, several provinces had already begun reopening in May, turning salons and retail stores into spreader events. Now, we are experiencing a second wave of lockdowns, something that New Zealand and China completely avoided via decisive action. It’s hard to look at their massive gatherings and see our government’s response as anything less than a failure in comparison.
We must also dismiss the notion that personal responsibility alone led to Canada’s inferior response. New Zealanders and the Chinese are not magically more selfless than Canadians, and to suggest that plays into cultural stereotypes. Partying teenagers may have caused individual spreading events, but it is the job of our leaders to be an example. Early on, Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, repeatedly insisted that the risk to Canadians remained low, even as Wuhan was building emergency hospitals. When Premier Ford invited his daughters to his house in violation of Covid-19 protocols, he showed Ontarians that he wasn’t taking the virus seriously, and many of them followed his lead. With mixed signals coming from our governments and rapidly easing restrictions, can you really blame people for deciding that the virus was nothing but a bad cold?
We should be asking our elected leaders why we spent our New Year’s Eve mourning alone, while New Zealand and China spent theirs celebrating together. When the next pandemic comes, they need to be ready—because they weren’t this time, and we are still paying the price.