What will a Joe Biden presidency mean for us during COVID-19?

OPINION: There’s finally a different president in the White House. And the decisions he makes could shape how we fight the pandemic here at home
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 22, 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House about his administration’s COVID-19 response on January 21, 2021. (Al Drago/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM)



The presidency of Joe Biden is not yet 100 hours old, so some writers would be nervous about trying to divine what it will all mean for a continental response to a pandemic that’s already been fiendishly complicated and made fools of plenty of people who have tried to speak with any certainty about it.

Perhaps I should be one of those writers! But today I’m mostly just happy for the country to our south (which contains no small number of my extended family) that they’re no longer saddled with one of the top-five worst presidents in their history. So here’s some informed speculation only slightly biased by a general sense of optimism for a country of 330 million.

While there are arguably more acute issues in the United States-Canada relationship (Alberta Conservatives are already angry about the decision to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline), it’s difficult to overstate how big a difference it’s going to make if the Biden administration simply makes a transition to mediocre-level competence. The U.S. has suffered, by one October estimate, 117,622 more deaths than it would have seen if it had simply addressed the pandemic as competently as Canada has. (On October 31, the U.S. death toll was 230,000; it now stands at 400,000.) And, before anyone accuses me of patriotic smugness — Canada is emphatically not a world leader on this score.

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To put it another way: Biden doesn’t need to be a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime president to start massively improving matters in the U.S.; he just needs to be what baseball fans call a replacement-level player. That’s less a ringing endorsement of the new president and more a bleak assessment of his predecessor, but that’s where we are in early 2021.

The Biden administration could do a number of things in the next several months that could cause serious ripples in Canada’s own pandemic response. Will, for example, the president invoke his powers in the Defence Procurement Act to increase vaccine production, as was predicted in December? One of the powers the president has under the DPA is compelling manufacturers and their suppliers to make government orders a priority, and Pfizer has been advocating for the law’s use for months now in order to increase production. That’s all fine for the Americans, but we’ve seen already in this pandemic that global supply chains are tightly interwoven; it’s hardly out of the question that, at least in the short term, increased U.S. production could come at the expense of customers elsewhere — like here.

Earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford challenged the new president to provide Canada with 1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from the company’s Michigan plant to offset the shipments we’re not receiving from Europe right now; given the difficulties the new administration is going to have simply meeting its own goal of vaccinating 100 million people in 100 days, that’s almost certainly not going to happen.

That said, it would be a mistake to view a Biden administration as a net negative for Canada, even if its efforts do end up complicating ours (and they might not!). The biggest risk the U.S. poses to Canada right now comes in the form of an out-of-control pandemic raging on the other side of our only land border — a border that, despite Ottawa’s nominal closures, remains more porous than we’d like.  Getting that under control, either with vaccinations or (more quickly) with enhanced public-health measures would mean fewer Canadians at risk.

There’s a more subtle and less direct benefit to a more active U.S. administration for Canadians, though: it might shake some of our provincial (and, yes, federal) leaders out of the sense of complacency that has clearly started to set in as far as COVID-19 goes. There’s nothing Canadians love more than telling themselves, “Hey, at least we’re doing better than the Yanks,” and, since at least March of last year, that has for once had the benefit of being undeniably true.

But America is already administering more vaccines per capita than Canada is, by a large margin, and if that hasn’t started to pay dividends yet, that won’t be true forever. And if the federal government and some of the worst-hit U.S. states can get a handle on new infections through improved (read: any) federal leadership in a public-health response, they could start seeing results even sooner.

But Canadian governments are not passive actors, or at least they don’t have to be. If the U.S. redoubles its efforts and starts to be a leader in COVID-19 response, we should be willing to learn from them and redouble our own efforts here. That might mean having the federal government get more ambitious about procuring more vaccines (and speeding the approvals of alternatives, such as the AstraZeneca vaccine already approved in the United Kingdom). It could mean the provinces getting serious about the social supports side of public health, as their own scientific advisers have all but begged them to do. Ideally, it would mean both, and more.

The alternative: sometime this year, we’ll look south of the border with envy, instead of horror, as Americans start to resume their normal lives, while our leaders assure us that, if we’re patient, we’ll get there, too — just wait until September.

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