Try to talk about the abysmal performance of Canadians during the pandemic and expect to be met with a chorus of whataboutism and deflection.

Point to developing countries with comparatively scant resources like Vietnam, a country of 95 million with 1,537 COVID cases and 35 deaths, and some will say they hid the true figures.

Point to developed countries like Japan, with 126 million people and 4,300 COVID deaths, and some will say they have a weaker strain of the virus or attribute Japan’s success to high levels of vaccination for tuberculosis.

It makes little difference the examples one may point to, there will always be some excuse for why what is happening in Canada, a country of 37 million people with over 18,000 COVID deaths, or roughly one in every 2,100 people, isn’t as bad as it looks.

What about this? What about that? What about this other thing? And after all, at least our situation is better than in our traditional punching bag, the United States.

Whataboutism and deflection are easy ways to assuage guilt and avoid having to ask difficult questions. But with cases skyrocketing and the death count mounting, at some point these strategies of denial stop working.

People in this country are going to start asking how things have gone so terribly wrong.

The blame game

It was the government’s fault, some will say. They waffled on the masks and the official communications plan was unclear. Or the government did not do enough to protect seniors in care homes. Or the government did not implement lockdowns at the right time. Or any number of complaints about the government.

Certainly it is true that all levels of government across Canada have responsibilities for decisions that were taken and the ways they communicated with the public. But blaming the government is another deflection, a way of avoiding personal and collective responsibility. And again, governments in many countries with significantly less resources enacted essentially the same restrictions and policies, and the results have been far better than in Canada.

It was the bad apples, some will say. There are always going to be people who are idiots and not follow the rules. There is just no reasoning with some people.

It is true that there are individuals who have all along stubbornly refused to take even the most basic of precautions for their own safety or the safety of others. But presumably the argument must be, then, that comparatively speaking Canada has more ignorant and idiotic people than other countries, and that somehow the actions of individuals do not ultimately add up to a collective condemnation.

The uncomfortable truth

Part of the uncomfortable truth Canadians are starting to come around to is that we have failed. Canadians failed to come together in the face of adversity. Canadians failed to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society. Canadians failed this test of social solidarity and common decency.

It is only a matter of looking at what is happening in our own cities and towns, recognizing the victims, and understanding that all this suffering did not have to happen.
Recognizing failure, the question then is how did everything go so wrong? Is there something about the character of this country and its people — some underlying social, cultural, or economic factors — that contributed to this failure?

Because at the end of the day, the most obvious difference between Canada and other countries with respect to the pandemic is, quite simply, that Canada is populated by Canadians.

So even though it is true that different people may have more or less direct responsibility for this failure, it is in the first instance a collective failure and needs to be recognized as such. It is a failure, writ large, of basic human decency. The effects of this failure go beyond the terrible cost in human life and suffering, to also destroy relationships, shatter communities, and undermine the fundamental idea of what it is to be Canadian.

This series on COVID19 ethics in Canada will continue by exploring the effects of the pandemic on social relations, on Canadian identity, and the issue of basic human decency in the next article, “COVID19 and the measure of common decency.”