How Justin Trudeau one-upped Joe Biden

Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst, author of the book Digital Pandemic and host of the podcast “Global Impact.” He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN —  

Against all odds, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managed to beat a Covid-19 vaccination benchmark that even his counterpart to the south, US President Joe Biden, was unable to meet.

After initially bungling its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, falling behind many other developed nations, including the United States, over the weekend Canada moved ahead of its southern neighbor in per-capita vaccinations.

Michael Bociurkiw
Chrystia Chudczak
Michael Bociurkiw

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) vaccine tracker, as of mid-day Tuesday, 50.8% of Canadians were fully vaccinated. By comparison, just 48.6% of Americans have taken their full dose of vaccines, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the difference for people given at least one dose is even greater: 69.7% and 56.1% respectively).

That beats a benchmark set by Trudeau and federal officials, who said in late November that the majority of Canadians would not be expected to be vaccinated until September or even as late as December 2021.

Meanwhile, a levelling off of inoculations south of the Canadian border meant that the US fell short of Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults get at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot by July 4, and the spread of the Delta variant in the US is leading to a sharp increase in hospitalizations and deaths nationwide, particularly in states with high numbers of unvaccinated people.

While the Trudeau government should avoid the temptation to take a victory lap it arrived just in time to deliver political dividends for Trudeau as he prepares for an expected reelection campaign.

It also allowed Ottawa on Monday to jump ahead of the US and announce a long-anticipated opening of the US-Canada border on August 9, when fully-vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents will be allowed into Canada. Public Security Minister Bill Blair said Monday in a press briefing that during a recent call with US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the US had not yet indicated that it would approve a reciprocal opening of the border to Canadians. (The border, which usually sees nearly 200,000 people cross in either direction each day, was closed for the first time ever to non-essential travelers and traffic in March 2020 due to Covid-19.)

How did Canada, which badly bungled its initial vaccine roll-out and largely avoided extreme measures, like the ones seen in the US, such as using pop stars and financial incentives such as guns, trucks and cash to help boost demand, manage to pull ahead of the United States?

To start, Canada was spared the politicization of vaccines and of the rejection of such widely-accepted public health protocols as mask-wearing and social distancing that was seen in the United States.

“Of course we have our share of libertarians and anti-vaxxers. But they are a small minority. Canadians huddle close to the center and it serves them well. Getting the jab is part of that,” Colin Robertson, vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told me.

In Canada for the most part, scientists and experts – some of whom became mini celebrities on television – were given the lead in dictating policy and that gave Canada a leg up over othercountries. And there are only 13 provincial and territorial leaders in Canada, compared to 50 governors in the US, which made it easier for Ottawa to battle the virus in a coordinated manner.

“One thing the data show us is the extent to which politics does not drive the decision to be vaccinated in Canada relative to the US,” Shachi Kurl, president of polling organization Angus Reid Institute, told me.

But nothing seemed to have focused the minds of Canadians more than the possibility of further lockdowns. The federal and provincial governments tactic of turning up the heat with the threat of rollbacks on openings resembled the playbook of other jurisdictions such as Singapore where case numbers were kept low. Late last year in the Southeast Asian city state, authorities said lockdown restrictions may not be relaxed if at least 70% of Singaporeans didn’t use some form of approved tracing technology.

Initially, Canada faced great difficulty procuring Covid-19 vaccines, and Trudeau warned citizens to expect to fall behind other developed countries, including the US. The delay in vaccination – which was partially blamed on the country not having its own its own domestic pharmaceutical production facilities – allowed an incredibly punishing third wave, resulting in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, having one of the world’s longest lockdowns – more than 360 days – according to BBC News.

To date, more than 1.4 million Canadians have been infected by Covid-19 and 26,466 have died.

By late 2020, Canada had reportedly secured enough Covid-19 vaccines for every citizen to be vaccinated five times over, but the country still lagged in actually getting those doses out to the public because of delivery delays. By the time spring rolled around, Canadians were spoiled for choice, given the luxury of opting for the messenger RNA (mRNA) or vector vaccines – or an exotic combination of both technologies.

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Expect Trudeau to leverage the vaccine success to the hilt when he hits the hustings. Tainted by several political scandals from his past two terms in office and still fresh memories of punishing lockdowns and seniors dying by the hundreds in care homes, clawing back his parliamentary majority will require political spin on the level not yet seen in a Canadian election.

But as other elected leaders worldwide have discovered, if there is one thing the Covid-19 virus is extremely adept at it is exploiting the smallest cracks in our defenses. Taking a victory lap too early and rolling back public health measures for political gain – especially when, as Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has been warning that the country is still confronting struggles with vaccine hesitancy among its citizens – can bring literally deadly consequences.

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