In a phenomenon normally limited to Olympic years, Canadians and their news media have lately been doing a lot of scoreboard watching. But they are not scanning for gold, silver and bronze medals, it’s vaccination rates they seek.
As we have been hearing for many weeks, the rollout of the COVID-19 immunization campaign has been slow, the result mainly of interruptions in vaccine supply from European manufacturers. A bunch of other countries are vaccinating at a faster rate and, according to one media-financed poll, Canadians are at least somewhat angry about it – 71 per cent of them according to an Ipsos on-line poll of 1,000 participants. Public ire is affecting the popularity of the Prime Minister, down five points from last month, according to another poll from Angus Reid Institute.
The scoreboard that has captured the attention of the media, the opposition and an apparently enraged populace is maintained by Our World In Data, which keeps track of vaccinations by country. The site contains several different metrics – daily, weekly and total doses, as well as single doses, full immunization and doses per population. Last week, in the wake of vaccine shipment interruptions announced in January, the official opposition uncovered one benchmark purporting to show “more than 52 countries around the world” doing better vaccinating its citizens than Canada.
The Conservatives didn’t specify which yardstick they were using. No doubt it was the one casting the harshest light on the government’s performance. However, using as the criterion “vaccine doses administered per 100 people,” Our World In Data showed Canada at 3.52 on Feb. 17, behind only 17 countries, not 52.
As has been widely reported, Israel was way out in front at 79.48 per 100, followed several lengths back by the United Arab Emirates at 53.43. The United Kingdom and the United States were also-rans at third and fourth at 24.30/100 and 16.83/100 respectively. And ten of the 17 countries higher up in the standings were, like Canada, in single digits, ranging from Denmark at 7.54 to France at 4.68.
Lost in the nationalistic clamour over the race results and the glitches in Canada’s immunization rollout is the fact that on a number of important life and death metrics, Canada is doing much better than most of the countries higher on the immunization list. My go-to source is Worldometer, which lays out COVID-19 deaths, cases and active cases per million population for over 200 countries.
The detailed numbers are in the table, but these are key takeaways:
- of the 17 countries doing better at immunization, only Morocco has had fewer total cases and active cases per million of COVID-19 than Canada;
- only six of the 17 – Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Serbia, Denmark and Turkey- had fewer deaths per million;
- Canada’s rate of 570 deaths per million was less than one-third that of the U.K., 63 per cent below that of the U.S. and except for Japan, by far the lowest in the G7.
Table 1: Vaccine doses and COVID-19 cases and deaths by country
Source: OWID, Worldometer
All of these indicators suggest that while the countries ahead of Canada in the immunization sweepstakes are off to a better start, with the exception of Morocco they have had a much more difficult time containing the virus through public health measures.
Specifically, consider that five of the countries ahead of us are our partners in the G7 club of rich nations. Led by the U.S. at 85,759 cases per million, the G7 minus Canada and Japan’s exemplary numbers, have averaged more than 68,000 cases per million, more than three times higher than Canada. Death rate per million for the five rich countries is 1,444, 2.5 times higher than Canada’s.
It’s therefore no surprise leaders in the U.S, U.K., Italy, Germany and France are chomping at the bit to vaccinate, given their less than outstanding record at keeping COVID under control. And consider as well that France, Germany and Italy were barely ahead of us in the vaccination race.
But international comparisons that show the Trudeau government’s handling of the pandemic in a positive light are not the ones getting airtime. Even Canadian government and public health officials – presumably intent on maintaining public vigilance with the arrival of new variants – have been loath to point out that active cases are in sharp decline across the country, down almost 60 per cent since the first of the year.
None of these facts are meant to whitewash the disappointing start to the Liberal government’s vaccine procurement program. Every delay in getting people vaccinated increases the chances of disease and death. But to put matters in perspective, while 17 countries are vaccinating faster than Canada, hundreds are not, many of them lacking access to vaccines or the means to deliver it.
South American countries have been particularly hard hit, and some of them are relying on COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing initiative. Canada, along with other rich countries bought into the program with the expectation that half of the doses purchased would be for this country while half would go into a pool for low-income nations.
Unfortunately, alone among G-7 countries Canada has opted to take early delivery of its share, despite having already paid for over 200 million doses and holding options on 170 million more. The COVAX affair drew attention to Canada’s faltering procurement program while damaging its international reputation with its voracious appetite for vaccine.
With word that the country will receive 640,000 doses this week from Pfizer and Moderna, the prospect of hitting the long-standing target of three million vaccinations by the end of March looks within reach. It’s possible this will put a damper on politically-driven vaccine nationalism, but given the government’s past record and current public opinion that’s unlikely.
 Like other East Asian countries, Japan’s case and death rates are significantly lower than Canada’s – 3,363 cases and 59 deaths per million.