The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada is failing on vaccines — and the responsibility lies with Justin Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks outside his Ottawa residence on Feb. 5. (David Kawai/Bloomberg)
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A consistent theme of the Justin Trudeau years has been wild swings in the Canadian prime minister’s public reputation. One moment he’s the world’s “woke boyfriend,” glamorized in literal pinup calendars, the next he’s getting busted for repeatedly wearing blackface. On Monday, he’s celebrated as a paragon of clean and ethical government in contrast to Donald Trump’s Washington; on Tuesday, his political opponents are running ads implying his ethics scandals are actually worse than the former president’s.

And now we find ourselves rattled by yet another breakneck twist in the Trudeau joyride: An administration once celebrated as a global model for handling covid-19 now finds itself on the receiving end of growing global pity, as it becomes an example of a nation getting vaccines very wrong indeed.

To be fair, Canada’s reputation on covid-19 was always quite inflated and stereotype-driven. When compliments were reaching their peak last summer, the country could at best be said to be handling the pandemic at about a C+ level, certainly nowhere near as impressively as places like Finland or Denmark — to say nothing of Taiwan or New Zealand. Since then, Canada has seen an autumn of sharp increases in both infections and deaths, and recent reporting has highlighted the degree that, for all the praise Trudeau received as a paragon of clear instruction to his naturally rule-following subjects, plenty of Canadians are still refusing to follow social distancing orders.

When it comes to vaccines, however, there is far less ambiguity. In contrast to Britain and Israel, most European Union members, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Turkey and even the perennial U.S. boogeyman, Canada is not vaccinating at anywhere near world-class levels. According to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, at the time of writing, Canada is hovering around 38th place in terms of vaccine doses administered per 100 people, having issued just over 1 million shots to a country of more than 37 million.

There is no handy anthropological cliche that can be used to wave this failure away. Canadians are not being vaccinated in low numbers because they’re somehow too egalitarian or polite to take their shots until everyone is guaranteed one. Nor, for that matter, can one cite any evidence suggesting the country is teeming with anti-vaccine advocates or some other widespread movement of resistance. No, Canadians sit in 38th place simply because their government has not obtained enough vials of serum to inject them with.

By now, there has been ample documentation as to why this is, and the roads lead back to specific and flawed decisions made by the Trudeau government at critical moments. An ambitious early deal with Chinese vaccine producer CanSino fell through when the Chinese government vetoed the shipment, likely for political reasons that were hardly impossible to anticipate given the gloomy state of Canada-China relations. The government likewise negotiated slowly and poorly with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, accepting an excessively pessimistic premise that large quantities of vaccine would neither be ready nor deliverable before April, leaving Ottawa startled when injection season wound up kicking off in December. In what seems destined to be yet another iconic Trudeau moment of halo-slipping, his government has been blasted for dipping into a vaccine stockpile intended for the developing world to supplement the deficient supply it obtained on its own.

Some of the reactions to all of this have been classically Canadian. There has long been a fantasy that Canada could be some sort of self-sustaining autarky if only its leaders were more patriotic. Recent rhetoric has accordingly claimed the country’s embarrassing vaccine rollout just proves Canada needs its own domestic vaccine industry, in the way previous generations were told Canada needs its own airplane or car industry, or should spend more time building oil refineries and lumberyards. Trudeau himself has partially conceded to this crowd, approving a deal earlier this month that will see the Novavax vaccine produced at a yet-to-be-built facility in Montreal (though it’s possibly too late to matter).

But looking around the world, there’s really no indication that impressive vaccination rates correlate with this sort of muscular economic nationalism. Places like Chile and Israel simply seem to have inked earlier, better deals with the international pharma giants than Canada, with national governments that prioritized gaining access to adequate quantities of vaccines sooner, rather than gigantic amounts later. Many smaller nations of the European Union, similarly, are clearly benefiting from a supranational vaccine regime in which they have less sovereignty, rather than more — overall challenges notwithstanding.

Instead, it seems the most relevant variable is just that a lot of these other countries don’t have Trudeau in charge. As the denouement of this pandemic (hopefully) continues to unfold, Canadians unsatisfied with the speed of their escape will have a clear target for their outrage.

Read more:

J.J. McCullough: The Biden-Trudeau era brings potential for Canadian interests, but peril for Canadian identity

David Moscrop: Canada is trying to secure millions of covid-19 vaccine doses. It should share.

J.J. McCullough: Canada’s covid-19 second wave is a humbling moment after a summer of bragging

David Moscrop: Canada’s entitled politicians think they’re above the rules during the pandemic

Nora Loreto: Canada’s coronavirus crisis exposes the deadly issues in long-term care

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