President Donald Trump participates in a governors' video teleconference about COVID-19 on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in the White House Situation Room. Image: Shealah Craighead/White House/Flickr

The United States now leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases, at more than 85,000.

Canada has more than 4,000 cases, which means the U.S. total is more than 20 times that of Canada, while its population is less than 9 times greater. 

Put differently, the rate of infection in the U.S., as reported in confirmed cases, is more than double that of Canada.

Given that neither country has done a stellar job of testing, to date, we can assume the actual numbers of infected people in both countries are quite a bit higher than the official counts. But if we could factor in the figure for the untested population, it would not likely make the U.S. look better. The U.S. was slower to get its testing program going than Canada and still lags behind Canada in the proportion of the total population tested.

On Thursday, a senior official for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. government agency, made some comments that give a frightening indication of the actual magnitude of the contagion in the U.S. 

In an interview with the online publication The Hill, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said she sees clear signs that COVID-19 is spreading from its epicentre in the New York metropolitan area, where tens of thousands are afflicted with the virus, to many other cities throughout the U.S. 

Schuchat bases her conclusion not so much on the still-limited testing data, but on the numbers of people showing up with flu-like respiratory illness at emergency departments around the country.  

“Everything that I’m seeing today,” Schuchat warns, “suggests … we need to take this virus very seriously, and that we have to be absolutely sure that our health care systems in diverse geographies are ready for increased burden … So, I would be very reluctant to let up on measures in the nation as a whole.” 

As the crisis peaks, Trump wants to declare victory and disarm

What is the Trump administration’s response to Schuchat and other similar warnings from scientific experts on the U.S. government payroll and at leading universities and research institutes?

For the past week, while the number of cases has zoomed up each day, Trump has petulantly complained that what he calls the “cure” of physical (or social) distancing causes more harm than the virus. 

On Thursday, he put his complaint into action with a letter to all U.S. state governors. In it, the U.S. president asks them to classify each and every one of their states’ counties for their COVID-19 “risk level.” 

Trump says his administration now plans to issue new virus-control recommendations. 

The revised set of federal guidelines will deal with “maintaining, increasing or” — and this is the key point — “relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures …” 

Mercifully, the letter mentions that the federal government will base its new recommendations on data. It is not clear, however, what kind of data matters more to the president. Is it the health kind or the economic kind? 

We do know that Trump dearly wants to get as much of the country as possible open for business again, as soon as possible. He even tweeted, earlier this week, that the Democrats and what he called their “lamestream media” allies want the U.S. to remain shut down in order to hurt his re-election prospects in November. 

A noisy chorus of right-wing ideologues is cheering Trump on. 

Everyone from acerbic commentator Ann Coulter to former newspaper baron Conrad Black (whose crimes Trump pardoned) to one-time secretary of education William Bennett to a long list of doctrinaire free-market economists and financial analysts is jumping on the COVID-19-is-not-such-a-big-deal bandwagon. 

The senior medical officials working with Trump, such as highly respected infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, gamely try to claim that they and the president are on the same page. They twist themselves into rhetorical pretzels in order to placate the wacky and often totally off-the-wall president. 

The medical people cling to the idea that whatever decisions the administration ultimately takes on new guidelines will be data-driven. But those same scientists must know, deep down, that Donald Trump has never cared a whit for facts, least of all scientific facts. 

For the first time in more than a century we could see U.S. troops at our border

The letter to governors was not the only disconnected-from-reality move Trump made on Thursday. 

On that same day, Canadians learned that, with the virus spreading at breakneck speed in the U.S., officials in the Trump administration want to make sure none of us who live north of the border will be able sneak into the U.S., bringing the virus with us. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland both acknowledged that U.S. government officials have, unbelievably, proposed sending U.S. troops to patrol the U.S.-Canada border.

If the times were not so dire, it would be laughable to suggest that people from a country with a moderate rate of infection would want to sneak into the country where the virus is rampaging out of control.

The prime minister and Freeland are not laughing, however. 

It is rare for Canadian political leaders to talk publicly about behind the scenes conversations with the Americans, but they did so, in no uncertain terms, on Thursday. 

“Canada is strongly opposed to this U.S. proposal and we have made that opposition very, very clear to our American counterparts,” Freeland said, coming close to pounding the table in anger and frustration. Both Freeland and Trudeau are obviously more than merely annoyed. 

As for Trump, when asked about this he first muttered something to the effect that there are already troops at the border (not true). Then, as is his wont, he free-associated and said the issue was really trade. Some Canadians, Trump suggested, have been smuggling steel across the border.  

The irony here is that many Canadians have been talking about what this country might have to do should Trump proceed with his reckless idea of relaxing the restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The simple fact is that if there is any plausible danger of the virus spreading from one country to the other, that danger all flows one way — from the south to the north. 

Unlike in the U.S., in Canada, all municipalities, provinces and territories, without exception, have stringent shut-down and shelter-in-place measures in place. In the city of Montreal, for instance, not only are most businesses closed, only excluding those that are deemed essential, so are all city parks. 

Moreover, unlike in Trump’s U.S., there is no political pressure of any consequence in Canada to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. 

The right-of-centre governments of Alberta and Ontario are as onside with the need to maintain physical distancing and prevent the virus from spreading as are the centrist governments of the Atlantic provinces or the social democratic government of British Columbia.  

Indeed, Ontario’s premier Doug Ford and Alberta’s premier Jason Kenney have completely stopped sniping at the federal Liberal government for its carbon tax and supposed intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. They are fully committed to the national effort to defeat the virus. 

If the Trump administration is really serious about stationing troops at the world’s longest undefended border, maybe it is not, in reality, to stop sneaky Canadians, whether bearing contraband steel or deadly viruses. 

Maybe the troops’ role would be to apprehend fleeing Americans, terrified at what will happen when Trump capriciously decides he’s bored with social distancing and tries to force everybody back to work. 

UPDATE: As of Friday morning, March 27, there are unconfirmed media reports that the U.S. government has decided not to station troops near the U.S.-Canada border.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Shealah Craighead/White House/Flickr


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...