Donald Trump marked the Fourth of July with an apocalyptic speech at Mount Rushmore in which he stoked partisan grievance and deployed racist dog whistles, ignoring calls for unity as coronavirus cases surge.
Three days earlier, Justin Trudeau chose a more low-key location to celebrate Canada’s own national holiday. The prime minister and his family were photographed harvesting vegetables at an Ottawa food bank farm.
Unlike Trump and most of his supporters, they all wore face-masks as they sorted through bundles of broccoli.
The appearances by the two image-conscious leaders were emblematic of two wildly different leadership styles during the pandemic, which have helped one country slow the virus – and plunged the other into its worst health crisis in recent history.
As the US blew past 3 million infections on Wednesday, Trudeau expressed cautious optimism that Canada had stabilized the outbreak, and took a rare public jab at the Trump administration’s efforts during the pandemic.
“We were able to control the virus better than many of our allies, particularly including our neighbour,” Trudeau said.
In contrast, new coronavirus cases in Canada have continued to decline this week amid cautious optimism from public health officials that a gradual re-opening of the country is possible.
“It’s like night and day,” said Dr Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, of the stark differences between the two countries. “From coast to coast, we have the epidemic in Canada under excellent control. We’ve been able to suppress cases at the community level. Of course we’re still seeing some small outbreaks, but we’ve been able to suppress the vast majority of the infection and rapidly identify small outbreaks.”
With a population of nearly 38 million people, Canada is recording roughly 300 new infections each day, with a total nearly 28,000 active cases.
The US has a population nearly nine times larger, but its caseload – 1.6 million – is sixty times higher, and growing.
“I feel awful for them. They’re our friends and our neighbours. And obviously, the epidemic is getting worse, not better,” said Bogoch. “It’s really upsetting watching this unfold, knowing that most of this was largely preventable.”
This concern, however, is tempered by fear: more than 80% of Canadians support the idea of keeping the border between the two countries closed until the situation in the United States improves.
“Canadians have spent the past three months in isolation, away from businesses, friends, families and schools,” said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
“They’ve done all this to make sure that they survive the public health crisis. They don’t want the border to open and have Americans bring it up here.”
The contrasting pandemic experiences of the two countries aren’t just a result of luck or geography: experts point to widespread access to healthcare in Canada, as well as high levels of trust in government and public health officials.
The early months of the pandemic provide clues to the current realities in each country. Trump’s erratic leadership and determination to downplay the threat derailed efforts to swiftly contain the virus in the US. In Canada, consistent messaging from public health officials – and an emphasis on kindness – underscored a shared sense of duty.
“We locked down and we suppressed this virus. We stayed locked down because they told us to stay locked down. And we only opened up when they said it was okay to open up,” said Bogoch. “It hurt, but we did it.”
As a result, most provinces have lifted the most onerous restrictions and there are regions of the country that have still only seen a handful of cases.
In the US, mask-wearing has become a partisan issue, as Trump and his followers reject medical advice on face-covering. Large cities in Canada, meanwhile, have successfully implemented rules requiring masks in public, while also opening salons, patios and shopping malls.
Canada has not gone unscathed.
More than 80% of its 8,750 deaths were in long-term care homes. During the peak of the pandemic, the situation at a number of facilities became so dire that the country’s military was called to assist in Quebec and Ontario.
Migrant farm workers, whom the country relies on, have also experienced outbreaks due to close living quarters. As in the US and other countries, members of ethnic minorities account for the majority of cases in major cities.
“There’s certainly room to improve. It is by no means is it perfect here,” said Bogoch.
While trust in public officials and robust healthcare systems have been a critical component of fighting the virus, politics has also played an outsized role in both countries.
Heading into the pandemic, Trudeau was a weakened leader in a minority government. “He left the last election with his tail between his legs,” said Turnbull.
But Trudeau’s swift decision to bring aid packages, work with opposition leaders and make concessions has produced unlikely political alliances: over the past five months, the bitter partisanship has eroded, bringing political foes together in a shared sense of purpose.
The prime minister has used his daily briefings to emphasize public health messaging, – and model the suggested behaviour: after his wife tested positive for the virus, he quarantined for two weeks out of caution. Like other Canadians, he was unable to get a haircut for months.
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“His response to Covid-19 was very much impacted by the fact that his wife had tested positive. It gave him the opportunity to show how to be a responsible person,” said Turnbull. “He’s taken it seriously. That’s what builds the trust.”
Trump’s public messaging, in contrast, has been largely focused on the economy and his re-election campaign, despite the majority of Americans showing more concern for the pandemic.
“It’s rare to see someone so publicly offside. If you’re a responsible leader, you also often feel an obligation to represent what the public feels is important,” said Turnbull.
“It’s jarring to see a president say things that suggest he’s completely in denial about the fact that there is a public health crisis.”