Despite spending hundreds of billions during COVID, we seem to have little to show for it
As the pandemic moves into 2021, it’s important to reflect on how Canada is dealing with its impact. After a summer that included a semblance of normality, the fall and winter have brought a resurgence that’s taxing our ability to cope. As the second wave unfolds, various new lockdowns (with substantial rates of non-compliance) have been imposed, testing international air travellers on their return has begun nearly 10 months after the start of the pandemic, the vaccine rollout appears to be unfolding in slow motion, hospitalizations are rising and death tolls are creeping upwards.
The current sentiment seems to be that while Canada may have made a few mistakes along the way, we’ve been doing relatively well and deserve a pat on the back. Yet despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars at the federal and provincial levels with combined budget deficits approaching $500 billion for 2020-21 and the largest deficit-to-GDP ratio of any developed IMF country, we seem to have little to show for it.
The virus is surging in our major cities, we lag behind in administering vaccines to the point where many spent a long time in freezers. And the virus still runs rampant through many long-term care homes.
One wonders if in the end, the disjointed, confused and slow response to the pandemic was partly the result of the current interpretation of Canada’s federal system by its leaders.
Federalism is a system of government where units are able to be both independent and coordinate and should accommodate regional preferences with the economies of scale and political direction of a larger country. The Canadian federation has been held up as a model for the world given our standard of living, the freedom of our population and the stability and diversity of our political system.
While Canada’s diversity has meant regional tensions between the federal and provincial governments and perpetual crises and tug of wars over jurisdiction, it’s managed to remarkably stay aloft for more than 150 years. Indeed, one pundit remarked how Canada is a “bumblebee nation” able to fly despite being aeronautically impossible. However, one wonders if the flight of the Canadian bumblebee is more attributable to luck than ability.
Given our high standard of living, we’ve come to think of ourselves as high-flyers, but it increasingly seems that we are mediocre flyers caught up in gusts of wind provided by the historic proximity to a relatively benign and wealthy southern neighbour and our abundant natural resources. Canada’s leaders seem increasingly unable to solve problems. Our governments are increasingly bureaucratic and adept at planning but not at implementation. While quite accomplished at spending large sums of money—especially at the federal level—our governments seem extraordinarily incapable of getting things done themselves or harnessing private initiative. Indeed, when it comes to the private sector, our governments are experts in imposing rules and regulations rather than incentives. When some private companies stepped up to produce masks and hand sanitizer early in the pandemic, their reward was to be bypassed by foreign suppliers when the real money was spent.
During COVID, governments across the country have issued inconsistent and contradictory statements about masks, the rules for gatherings and so on. Consequently, many Canadians increasingly don’t know what they’re supposed to do to stay safe and some may think they’re following the “rules” even when they’re not. We’re told these are unprecedented times—but obviously not unprecedented enough for politicians of all stripes who tell us to stay home while they gallop around the world demonstrating an appalling lack of leadership.
Our federal government intones that health is a provincial responsibility, but there are federal and provincial health ministries and public health agencies and federal health transfers. Health as a provincial responsibility should provide experimentation and flexibility in dealing with the pandemic. But there seems to be little learning going on given that the relative success of the Atlantic provinces has yet to rub off on other provinces.
While the discord of the U.S. experience has not marked Canadian intergovernmental relations, one cannot help but wonder how much “politics” has marked public exchanges. Take the premiers asking for more health transfers or the federal response to the provincial clamour for the federal government to provide vaccines, which was followed by the expression of federal “disappointment” over the lack of quick distribution by the provinces.
Finally, the federal government has used its spending power not to provide early testing and comprehensive quarantine facilities at international airports or ramp up domestic vaccine manufacturing and distribution, but to dispense poorly-targeted transfers. And again, Ottawa has chosen not to do more to tackle the pandemic directly by hiding behind a strict interpretation of provincial jurisdiction over health. This federal government seems to act is if health is a provincial responsibility when necessary, but not necessarily a provincial responsibility. Sadly, all Canadians will pay the price for the failure of our governments.