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Charming Canadian, Ugly American?

Words and narratives are important for understanding the message that a government tries to construct when addressing an issue.  Canada and the United States (the US) have had very different experiences in establishing a narrative and this has been reflected in what the public’s perception of the virus has been.  The US has conveyed disorganization and confrontation while Canada has conveyed cooperation and inclusivity – this may have had a measurable impact.

In Short: When COVID-19 exploded into the public consciousness, politicians were faced with the challenge of deciding what exactly the virus was.  This may seem obvious on the surface: COVID-19 is a virus that primarily causes coughing and flu-like symptoms, sometimes resulting in death, especially among the elderly. Despite the simplicity of this explanation, the reality is that the way politicians speak about the virus can change not only our perceptions of the virus, but its very nature and how hard nations are hit.


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To understand how this occurs, let’s examine the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by both the Government of Canada, and the Government of the United States, with an emphasis on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and President Donald Trump.

Canadian vs. American Responses:

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases per million, 3-day rolling average
Daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million, rolling 7-day average

Per capita, the US has suffered approximately double the amount of cases and deaths, with death rates 30% more than Canada in May.


Framing COVID-19: It would be inappropriate to disregard the role of policy and preparedness in explaining this difference but today we’re going to focus on an aspect less explored: how the virus was framed in each of these countries.

Since early March, Justin Trudeau has reliably appeared outside Rideau Cottage for a televised addressed, near-daily, around 11am, to give the nation an update on the COVID-19 situation.  He has remained consistent in his reminders to adhere to social/physical distancing, maintain cleanliness, and follow the advice of public health officials. 

Canadian Unity: Perhaps most important of all, Trudeau’s narrative of a calm approach to the virus has been echoed by each of the premiers, and across the political spectrum:

  • Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, a historically vocal opponent of Trudeau on just about every issue, has found an unlikely ally in Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, with both figures praising each other for their response to the pandemic. 
  • Alberta premier Jason Kenny has apparently called a cease-fire on the trade war with British Columbia, and is donating surplus masks, gloves, and ventilators to several provinces. including BC. 

Overall, the Canadian political elite is presenting a united front against the virus.  There is no political grandstanding, no conspiracy theories of miracle cures, and no mocking of political opponents for wearing masks.

American Division: On the other side of the spectrum we have the response of the US.  Analysts have drawn many parallels between the Canadian and American response, framing the “civility” of the Canadian response in opposition to the US’s perceived crisis of misinformation, partisanship, and finger pointing. 

The response of the US has suffered from confusion and division.  President Donald Trump began the pandemic in early March by denying that a pandemic was taking place and downplaying the severity of the virus. As COVID-19 proved it was around to stay, Trump’s rhetoric changed from denying the pandemic’s existence, to assigning blame to others. Rather than providing a united front with state governors and Democrats, the US is split in their response:

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has emerged as the leader of the opposition to Trump’s response to COVID-19. 
  • When Trump called for the easing of lockdown restrictions to lessen the burden on the economy, Cuomo stated “the federal government has to be realistic about this – you can’t just wish it and then it is so” and “we don’t have King Trump.  We have President Trump.”

Political Polarization and Public Perceptions of COVID-19: Some key questions are emerging.  How much does a unified vs. a fractured approach matter?  Why does the way the virus is being framed affect the policies used to address it? 

The first question is tackled by some recent reports from the University of Toronto and the Canadian Journal of Political Science.  These reports are both concerned with the affect of partisanship and consensus in how the public responds to COVID-19. 

The first study conducted by UofT found that:

  • In America, “affective polarization reduces people’s willingness to comply with social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis.” 
  • Specifically, respondents who were affiliated with the opposite party of their governor were less likely to follow their directions regarding COVID-19. 

This could be explained by the partisan divide in America.  People that identify with the Republican party are more likely to follow the directions of the Republican President Donald Trump, who emphasizes the importance of restarting the economy, while individuals that support the Democratic party are more likely to echo Democratic party elites such as Cuomo that are advising a more cautious approach.

The second study claimed:

  • Public opinion “tends to become polarized on highly salient issues, except when political elites are in consensus.”
  • In Canada, where they found no significant difference in the advice of political elites, regardless of political affiliation, the research suggests Canadians have largely the same perception of COVID-19 and are more likely to follow social distancing advice

These two sources together seem to indicate that the more divided and confrontational a government is on an issue, the more divided and confrontational the public is.  This conclusion could aid in our understanding of why the Canadian response has resulted in fewer cases and deaths per capita.


Words Matter: Additionally, we can analyze how both Trump and Trudeau have spoken about the virus to see how they wanted the public to perceive the pandemic.  Below are three quotes from each leader, both taken from publications on March 11 2020, early on in the pandemic. 

Trudeau:

Trump:

  • My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak with you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak that started in China and is now spreading throughout the world.”
  • This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history. I am confident that by counting and continuing to take these tough measures, we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens, and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus.”
  • We have been in frequent contact with our allies, and we are marshaling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people.”

Trudeau and Trump’s Two Key Differences in Speaking About the Virus:

  1. The nation vs. the international:  Trudeau emphasizes this as a “global threat” to expand its impact beyond Canada and to the rest of the world.  Trump speaks only in terms of protecting Americans and makes no mention of protecting the international community. 
  2. COVID-19 as a threat:  Trump speaks about the virus as a “foreign virus” specifically mentioning its origin in China and often utilizing language reminiscent of conflict such as “allies,” “aggressive,” “marshalling, “and most importantly “threat” and “defeat.”  Trump frames the virus as a foreign threat that is attacking America, one that they must defeat.  Trudeau instead refers to it as a “global challenge,” and calls for “[minimizing]… impacts.”  This language is more reminiscent of a challenge to be overcome, rather than a threat to be defeated.

The US and Trump:

  • When analyzed together, we can see that Trump portrays the virus as a foreign threat that America must (and can) defeat. 
  • This creates a sense among the public that this is a war that America is fighting alone against a foreign threat. 
  • Almost exclusively, Trump refers to actions taken by the government as “I will,” furthering the sense that this is an individual fight against the virus.

Canada and Trudeau:

  • Conversely, Canada emphasizes unity and cooperation internationally, and domestically. 
  • We will get through this together,” meaning that the virus is not over until all Canadians are safe. 
  • Rather than using “I,” Trudeau uses “Canada” or “Canadians,” removing the individual aspect of the challenge of the virus.

The Bottom Line

The chosen language impacts how Canadians and Americans approach social distancing. 

For Canadians,

  • Who have had fewer protests against the lock-down and more adherence to social distancing.
  • Arguably, this is influenced by the virus being seen as a communal challenge. 
  • The pandemic isn’t over until all Canadians are safe according to Trudeau. 

For Americans,

  • Who are protesting for the lockdown to be lifted, thus adhering less to social distancing, their battle against the virus is more individual. 
  • As long as they do not have the virus, the battle is being won. 

In addressing COVID-19, it is easy to believe that actions speak louder than words. However, we must remember just how important those words are for deciding what those actions will be.


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