In 2002, the Onion published a piece of commentary headlined “Stereotypes Are A Real Time-Saver,” in which a fictional author shares his “handy little device” for escaping the complexities of modern life — just use stereotypes! Looking for a good doctor? Pick an Asian one, the satire explains, because they’re “smart and studious”!
During the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed an awful lot of us are using this same “handy little device” to explain away regional variations during a frustratingly inconsistent global crisis.
The United States is increasingly stereotyped as a uniquely bleak and broken country — particularly by American journalists. A large amount of U.S. coronavirus commentary accordingly attributes the United States’ extremely high numbers of cases and deaths to standard tropes about American racism, inequality, political dysfunction and stupidity. Paul Krugman of the New York Times says it’s the “longstanding anti-science, anti-expertise streak in American culture” that’s made America “exceptional, in a very bad way.”
Canada, by contrast, has received mostly favorable press. A July story from CNN attributes the country’s comparatively low rates to Canadians’ calm compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing (“most see it as their duty”), and their “unwavering deference to science.” The Toronto Star praised Canada’s “national DNA” of humility, trust and compassion.
But neither of these stereotype-heavy theories provide much useful insight for understanding what’s actually going on in North America.
For one, praising Canada’s “success” at keeping covid-19 at bay only works in a binary comparison with the United States. For much of the pandemic, Canada has consistently ranked among the 20 worst-hit nations, having passed 100,000 cases and 8,000 deaths in June. Per capita, Canada has been less successful fighting the virus than Germany, South Africa or Turkey — to say nothing of South Korea, Norway and Australia, whose rock-bottom numbers are legitimately world-class. Likewise, for all the talk of the naturally obedient Canadians, Canada actually has one of the world’s “lower rates of face-mask usage”— ranking behind the United States.
Second, in terms of land area, the United States and Canada are two of the largest nations on Earth. On coronavirus, as with anything, it’s absurd to make sweeping generalizations about how either continent-sized country has “experienced” it.
Quebec has recorded more than 5,600 coronavirus-related deaths, a number higher than all but nine states in the United States. Ontario has had more than 2,700 deaths — higher than 34 American states. If you live in Canada’s two biggest provinces, in short, it’s hardly obvious that things are going swimmingly. Perhaps they have less of that “national DNA”?
Similarly, the disparities between U.S. states — both red and blue — make it difficult to correlate the U.S. experience with any broad stereotype about American political culture. The “mask ban” imposed by Georgia’s Republican governor has been held up as the quintessential example of American right-wing misrule, yet many states run by progressive, science-minded Democrats, including New York, California and New Jersey, have faced considerably higher death tolls. It’s difficult to come up with a clear theory of what talents are lacked by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) but possessed in Canada by British Columbia’s premier, John Horgan. Yet British Columbia has among the fewest per-capita coronavirus deaths in the entire world. Experts have hazy theories as to why this might be, but they often just descend into vague praise for the communication skills of provincial health officer Bonnie Henry — as though the idea of having a stern authority figure go on television and tell people to socially distance hadn’t occurred anywhere else.
In the absence of good-faith, one-to-one policy comparisons, anecdotal speculation runs wild. Last month, a photograph of two Niagara Falls tour boats went viral; the American one packed with people, the Canadian one mostly empty. The contrast was supposedly “symbolic of the difference in the Canadian and American approaches,” reported the CBC, though it was later revealed the photographer had simply captured the Canadian boat during an unusually slow moment.
Which gets to the third point: Given how much we still don’t know about the novel coronavirus, grand, moralizing conclusions are absurdly premature. CNN may believe Canada triumphed over the United States because of “early and widespread testing” and “longer shutdowns,” but, as the BBC noted earlier this month, Japan has done none of this, and has a death rate even lower than British Columbia. (The country’s deputy prime minister naturally assumes it’s Japan’s superior culture.)
Indeed, when we look around the world, from socialist Sweden to right-wing Israel to austerity-crippled Greece, experiences with the pandemic rarely seem to sync up with stereotype, in part because most governments do appear to be making a good-faith effort to transcend ideology in favor of deferring to the advice and counsel of experts — however varied their advice may be.
Decades from now, our current crop of world leaders will doubtless look pathetic — an uncoordinated mess of politicians running in dozens of different directions, producing an unnecessarily high body count through ignorance of solutions that appear obvious in hindsight. Whatever those solutions wind up being, however, I really doubt “Canadian niceness” will top the list.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
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