Why Canada can't logistic

Canada is a modern and wealthy welfare state. So why is our pandemic response so consistently weak when it comes to everything except writing cheques?

Andrew Potter is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

Given the slow pace of vaccine delivery from Ottawa and the weirdly lethargic approach to getting needles in arms at the provincial level, Canadians are once again confronted with the fact that their governments have a lot of trouble doing things. Whether it is maintaining acceptable stockpiles of PPE, securing the nation’s borders, implementing a robust testing regimen, properly tracing contacts, overseeing and enforcing quarantine or self-isolation orders, managing and staffing LTC facilities… you name it, we’re not very good at it. 

Over the past year, the shorthand way of accounting for these various failures is to say that we’re bad at “logistics”, which we certainly are. And it is probably because our governments recognize this that both Ontario and Ottawa have hired military people to oversee the vaccine rollouts, and why, previously, the military had to take over certain provinces’ LTC facilities. The army might not know much about health care, but it understands logistics. 

But to say that we are bad at “logistics” is just to give the problem a name, it doesn’t really explain it. So what does? 

The tl;dr explanation is: we are bad at logistics because we don’t have to be good at it. The longer explanation probably has something to do with Canada’s somewhat unique geopolitical position.

From the very beginning one of the more confounding things about the COVID-19 coronavirus has been how variable and often unpredictable its effects have been. This is true of individual cases, but equally so when it comes to outcomes by country. To put it directly, some countries have done much better than others in managing the pandemic, and while some of the correlations are what one might have predicted going into it, a lot of what has happened is very surprising. 

For example, you might have anticipated that countries led by right-wing populists would struggle, and that’s been pretty much borne out by the skyrocketing caseloads in countries like Brazil, the UK, and the United States. But would you have guessed that Sweden and Holland would have some of the highest infection rates in the world? Or that Belgium, followed by the Balkan countries, would have the highest per capita death rates in the world?

When all is said and done on this pandemic, the question of state response and how it correlates with outcomes is going to keep grad students at the PhD coalfaces for years. It’s going to be complicated: some of the relevant variables include the system of governance (democracy, authoritarian, theocratic; presidential or parliamentary; unitary state or federation) and the ruling party ideology during the pandemic (socialist, liberal, conservative, left or right populist). Climate is probably going to be an important variable, as is per capita GDP. 

But another dimension worth looking at might be the question of a country’s strategic geography. That is, how secure or insecure is a country’s location, to what extent is it directly and immediately responsible for the safety and security of its citizens, and how does this correlate with its management of the pandemic? 

Share

A recurring theme of global coverage of the coronavirus has been how good a job some countries have done. These include places like Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. And while people skeptics like to point out that maybe it helps to be an island, that didn’t exactly help the UK. In fact, what the countries that have had successful fights against COVID seem to have in common is a highly insecure strategic geography.  It may turn out that countries that are already dealing with pervasive security threats, that know they alone are responsible for their own security, were quicker and more forceful to act, and have populations that are more willing to go along with stricter containment measures. 

Consider then the case of Israel, the country with perhaps the worst strategic geography in the world. Israel has vaccinated 22 per cent of its population and is on track to vaccinate every one of its citizens by springtime. In comparison, the UK has vaccinated almost 4 per cent of its people while the US has vaccinated just under 3 per cent of its population.

Here in Canada, we have struggled with both vaccine supply (a federal responsibility) and injections (the provinces’ job). We have acquired just over 700 000 doses, and less than 60 per cent of those doses have made it into Canadian arms. The result is that barely 1 per cent of Canadians have been vaccinated, and the feds and provinces are each blaming the other for dropping the ball. 

But the thing is, there is nothing magical about how Israel ended up being in a position to be free of the pandemic in another couple of months: they just decided to do it:

We convinced (Pfizer) them that if they give their vaccine to us first, we will know exactly how to administer it in the shortest time possible — and this is precisely what happened," Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told POLITICO via his spokesperson. "We were prepared early, signed the agreements early, and told pharmaceuticals they would see results early. It's a win-win situation." 

That is, Israel didn’t do anything that Canada couldn’t have done, except that this is just the sort of thing that Canada doesn’t do. And it is of a piece with all of the other manifest failures of Canada’s governments during the pandemic.

To understand our problems on this front it’s useful to look at what we did well in managing the pandemic, and that amounts to one big thing: spending money. By some measures, Canada’s income supports for both individuals and businesses have been the most generous in the world. In a nutshell, Canada’s top-line response to the global pandemic has been to print money and hope that it convinces enough people to hunker down until this whole thing goes away.

What all this highlights is that states specialize: there are capabilities or capacities that some states do well, others that they do poorly, and that the development or atrophy of these different capacities is itself a consequence of a state’s strategic needs. We like to talk about the modern “welfare state,” but welfare isn’t one thing. It’s a combination of domestic security, national defence, public health, environmental stewardship, and a social safety net. Some states prioritize security, others the social safety net. Few countries, if any, do all of these things well.

What the pandemic has revealed about the Canadian welfare state is that it is basically little more than a giant insurance scheme. The global geopolitical lottery has made us rich, and we are able to use that wealth to insure ourselves against enormous losses. But what we don’t seem inclined to do is take the steps that would protect Canadians from those losses in the first place.

And that may be because we don’t have any major security concerns to worry about, domestically or abroad. It’s a peaceable kingdom, and we stopped caring about our security and self-defence in 1940, when we handed that over to to the Americans.

Which is probably a big reason why we aren’t any good at logistics. We don’t have to be, because someone else pretty much takes care of it for us.

But this might also be why we don’t have is anything close to what more security-focused or self-reliant states such as Israel, Taiwan, or Australia possess, and that is any culture of collective desperation or focused sense of urgency about the coronavirus. The Americans have always taken care of this sort of stuff for us — surely they’ll come through again?

Not this time. The hard-won lesson of the global pandemic is if you don’t save yourself, don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. (AP)

NOTE TO READERS

I started this newsletter in the early days of the pandemic with the help of some of the students and instructors in the Masters in Public Policy program at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. We published a daily newsletter for most of the next four months, with sporadic mailings since then. This will be the final edition of this newsletter under the “Policy for Pandemics” branding. Starting in two weeks, it will relaunch as The Bell, a weekly newsletter dedicated to exploring the complexity of making good public policy. We have a great team of editors and contributors lined up, and I hope you stick with us as we begin to navigate the post-pandemic world. - AP

Coming soon…