The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada’s media has found a new explanation for its covid crisis

An ambulance crew delivers a patient to Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital on Jan. 3. (Cole Burston/Reuters)
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Following the Canadian news media over the past two years has been a fascinating lesson in how national narratives are constructed and reconstructed in times of crisis.

In the earliest days, Canada’s covid-19 pandemic was framed as a scientific problem, destined to be solved by properly credentialed professionals. Figures such as Theresa Tam, the nation’s chief public health officer, and her various provincial counterparts became subjects of sustained, supportive media attention intended to encourage deference to their leadership.

As it became clearer that the burden for fighting covid-19 would be borne mostly by individuals, media focus shifted to observing the actions and attitudes of the Canadian public. Were we following the rules, trusting the science and showing empathy for our fellow man? As armchair anthropology rose in popularity, so did anti-American sneering, with braggy editorials about how Canada’s “national DNA” of kindness and cooperation would produce a much better pandemic performance than the disease-riddled dystopia of then-President Donald Trump.

Yet, amid endless praise for Canadians’ good behavior — soon embodied by a vaccination rate of more than two-thirds — this narrative eventually broke down. As the delta, and later omicron, variant raged and Canadian hospitals continued to be packed to the rafters with cases — prompting canceled surgeries, closed classrooms, perpetually extended lockdowns, and frantic gimmicks such as Quebec’s “anti-vax tax” — it appeared Canadian niceness wasn’t a sufficient explanation for much of anything.

By last spring, the Canadian media had grown increasingly critical of Canada’s political leaders, now routinely accused of mismanaging the pandemic, with insufficiently consistent strategy and bad communication among the most common complaints.

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More recently, however, a new narrative has emerged. Maybe Canada’s covid-19 story was never about the wisdom of Canada’s scientific elite or the good manners of its citizens or even the incompetence of its politicians. Maybe, all along, it was about the deficiencies of Canada’s much-vaunted public health-care system.

As is the case in most places, the majority of Canadians being hospitalized by covid-19 are unvaccinated. It’s a relatively small population, but if the amount of rage directed toward them seems disproportionate, it’s only because their impact has been, with the overflowing hospital situation in Canada’s progressive provinces now resembling the reddest states in the United States, where the percentage of unvaccinated is around twice as large. Yet, as many are starting to observe, the shockingly meager capacities of Canadian hospitals resembled, say, covid-era Alabama even before the pandemic. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada has only 12.9 intensive care beds per 100,000 people — exactly half that of the United States.

Nevertheless, to the extent the “embarrassing” deficiency of Canadian hospitals has started to make headlines, existing taboos have ensured the analysis remains stiff and restrained. Small hospitals have tight budgets, which reflect the compromises inherent in honoring the idiosyncratic Canadian expectation that absolutely all essential medical services be provided by the state (40 percent of all provincial expenditures go to health care in Canada, with government-run hospitals consuming about a quarter of that).

Unwilling to contest this rather extreme assumption, critical media reactions — such as a recent offering from the Toronto Star editorial board — have been mostly limited to blaming “chronic underfunding” for the lack of hospital space, resolvable only by pumping “a lot more money” into the system.

“If you want it, you have to pay for it,” concluded Fort Erie, Ontario, Mayor Wayne Redekop elsewhere in the paper.

J.J. McCullough: Canadian intellectuals worry about the U.S. becoming a dictatorship. Maybe they should worry about Canada.

Those interested in more genuinely contrarian perspectives have to look outside legacy publications. The upstart conservative journal the Hub, for instance, recently featured a column by economist Ash Navabi, advocating the repeal of Ontario’s half-century-old ban on private hospitals — a ban which, he notes, has resulted in the country’s largest province building exactly one new hospital in the past three decades. Navabi, by contrast, advocates letting a thousand hospitals bloom: “Whether they run it for profit or not, or how close they are to other existing government hospitals, or even what kind of doctors they hire, should be entirely left up to the entrepreneur taking the risk of competing with the government.”

The very notion of medical institutions “competing with government” will give a certain kind of middle-class Canadian conniptions, given the nightmarish caricatures of “private medicine” popular in Canadian culture and widespread ignorance over the degree to which things like privately run hospitals can be entirely compatible with public health insurance.

Despite purported media interest in “a new debate about the future of health care,” the smart money remains on little meaningful argument begetting little meaningful political action to reform the structural aspects of Canadian medicare that have most failed Canadians during this pandemic — yet are considered too culturally sacred to challenge.

Still, as far as national narratives promoted by covid-19 go, even the mildest concession that Canada’s health-care regime may not be quite as perfect as popular legend feels vastly more useful than what came prior.