Pandemic response is just one more reminder of Canada's economic blessing: Don Pittis

On Canada Day, let's take a rare opportunity to be smug about our understated affluence. Investing in people is Canada's strength, and we’ve seen how easy it is to mess it up, columnist Don Pittis writes.

Despite U.S. enormous wealth, coronavirus is revealing a few of our southern neighbour's economic ills

Canadians prepare to dine on a patio at a safe distance during Phase 2 of Ontario's reopening from COVID-19 restrictions. Canada's measured response to the pandemic is worth celebrating, Don Pittis writes. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Unflattering images on Twitter of a couple in St. Louis, Mo., holding guns as Black Lives Matter protesters walked past their mansion this week were one reminder of how the U.S. and Canada differ.

As Canada's economy contracted by almost 12 per cent in April, most Canadians know it is wise not to be smug during this perilous time. It is also good to be reminded that we share many unappealing traits with our bigger, richer neighbour.

But perhaps today is the one day we can make an exception to our stereotyped modesty. And while Canada must face up to its systemic racism, its rich-poor divide and its many other flaws, there may be an advantage in celebrating some of the country's economic attributes, if only to encourage them.

The charm of being a little boring

As U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly boasts about American greatness and exceptionalism in a way that treads dangerously close to unhealthy national megalomania, a little bit of Canadian boring is actually a charming attribute in contrast.

As I suggested a decade ago in an appeal to get an extension on Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier's declaration that the 20th century belongs to Canada, the trick is not to make a big thing about it.

Certainly this week, excited rich people with guns was not the only clear indication of our dissimilarity.

The most glaring difference between our two economies has been a product of the COVID-19 crisis. While Canadians may have suffered from a slow government response, and may yet suffer from reopening businesses too soon, the U.S has certainly been a case of global exceptionalism in its reaction to the coronavirus.

With the world's largest number of COVID-19 cases and the largest number of deaths, the U.S. may now be paying for its early strategy of sacrificing those most likely to get sick in order to keep the economy open — and then, after a brief lockdown, reopening some states too soon.

"I was in shock when they decided to open up Texas. I felt it was way too early," Canadian Grace Gonzalez, who lives in Houston, told The Canadian Press.

Despite the warning from what happened in New York, hospitals in southern states are now being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

The health-care advantage

Qaali Hussein, a critical care specialist in Phoenix, Ariz., told the Financial Times several hospitals were turning away patients arriving by ambulance at emergency departments.

"We're essentially saying we've reached capacity," she said.

In Canada, on the other hand, not even our most conservative leaders thought it was a good idea to sacrifice the infirm for the economy's sake.

The other economic advantage Canadians have in the current crisis is our health-care system, despite its many failings. People in the United States often avoid seeking treatment for fear that it will bankrupt their families.

According to experts in the U.S., Canada's universal health-care system is the icing on the cake for Canadians in the bottom half of the income distribution, who are already significantly better off than the equivalent group south of the border.

"Our income estimates may actually underestimate the economic well-being of Canadians relative to Americans," wrote Bloomberg's Justin Fox last autumn. "Indeed, Canadians usually receive more in-kind benefits from their governments, including notably in health care."

Less well-armed

We have many Canadians who are anxious to protect their wealth from their poorer neighbours, but income distribution figures indicate they are a little less zealous — and not just in their choice of armaments.

Instead, Canadians and their governments of all stripes have a tradition of investing in people, educating the children of new immigrants and providing higher subsidies for post-secondary education. Of course, that is a self-interested investment, because having more educated young people will allow us to build a stronger future economy despite a relatively small population.

It may also help avoid the growing economic and racial divide that sometimes seems to be tearing the United States apart.

Not all of Canada's economic advantages have been created by Canadians. Plopped down on the rich territory of Canada's Indigenous peoples, with rich farmland and minerals, a cool climate, fresh water and low population density, there is plenty of wealth to share.

And, of course, there is still plenty to fix.

Another great advantage we have, especially just now, is a near neighbour repeatedly reminding us that we must constantly stand on guard so as not to make a mess of it.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now