Over the summer, the Canadian media was in a celebratory mood. Canada’s covid-19 infection and death rates appeared relatively low by international standards, birthing a triumphalist narrative that Canada was one of the “good” countries doing everything right in response to the pandemic. It didn’t hurt that the neighboring United States — Canada’s perennial compare-and-contrast rival — was being simultaneously singled out as the lead exemplar of doing everything wrong.

Much of this commentary was exceedingly superficial, and, as I noted at the time, more bound up in lazy stereotypes about Canada’s supposed “national character” than anything else.

The Globe and Mail editorial board (never a shrinking violet when it comes to stroking the national ego) declared on Aug. 7 that “the credit goes entirely to our collective willingness to respond to an urgent call, and to temporarily set aside some individual liberties for the greater good.” The Toronto Star went further, proclaiming Canada had “done better” because “our national DNA favours the collective during a crisis that has demanded collective action, mutual sacrifice, looking out for the other rather than insistence on personal liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

It was cringe-inducing, but also unhelpful, given Canada now appears to be in the midst of a covid-19 spike that flattering stereotypes cannot explain, and might even exacerbate.

Toronto, for instance, has now “officially moved into ‘lockdown,’” a minimum 28-day period that will see a shutdown of colleges and universities, in-person dining at restaurants, most in-store shopping and social gatherings involving people outside one’s household. The move, which was imposed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford last Monday, comes in response to consistently record-shattering rates of covid-19 deaths and infections since October. Ontario has more than 116,000 confirmed covid-19 cases and more than 3,600 deaths, a dramatic increase since August, when the death toll was around 2,800 and cases closer to 40,000.

It’s a story replicated across Canada. In all of the country’s largest provinces, cases and deaths have steadily climbed since the summer, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally identifying a “second wave” in September. In November, Canada’s number of active covid-19 cases more than doubled in a single month. Strict pandemic regulations similar to Ontario’s have been imposed in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, limiting social gatherings, shopping and even inter-provincial travel. The ensuing costs to liberties, livelihoods and mental health will be significant.

Anti-American nationalists can take comfort that Canada’s numbers are still lower than the United States’ — though comparing states with provinces can yield more ambiguity — but the experience must be humbling nonetheless. Canada’s public health agency recently warned that the country’s case rates could soon reach 60,000 a day unless public behavior improves — which would be about double what Brazil is experiencing right now. Is this what being the world’s good example looks like?

We should remain deeply skeptical of any flavor of commentary that uses armchair sociology or partisanship as a substitute for the intimidating epidemiology that’s required to understand a viral pandemic. That said, the Canadian second wave does possibly reveal something important about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of patriotic mythologies as a tool of pandemic-fighting.

To grow up in Canada is to be endlessly bombarded with folk tales of Canadians’ legendary politeness, kindness and obedience. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some version of the same stupid joke — “How do you get 100 Canadians out of the pool? Tell them to!” — cited as a deep profundity about this country. Yet living day-to-day life in Canada also means experiencing a place dramatically at odds with such sentimentalism, a country of people lying to the return counter, swearing at each other in the parking lot and puking outside the club.

My theory of this dissonance is that an excess of unjustified compliments can actually discourage the behavior they’re supposed to be encouraging. If you know you’re going to be praised for being a paragon of politeness and empathy regardless of what you do, you may as well just behave the way you want. Genuinely good behavior, by contrast, often thrives in a climate of insecurity, where we feel a pressing need to earn positive attention that can’t be taken for granted. In other words, perhaps endless celebration of being a “good” covid-19 country might foster indifferent disobedience toward public safety protocols as smug complacency reigns.

Again, there is so much about the coronavirus we still don’t know, and as I wrote in August, it seems most likely that in coming years, many of our present theories about what is or isn’t required to stop its spread will seem embarrassingly ignorant. But at a time when Canadian authorities are seeking to battle a second wave through aggressively enforced restrictions at the expense of individual freedoms and incomes, it might be worth revisiting some of our national cliches that made many assume this day would never come.

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