Ottawa Citizen


Ontario, Quebec right behind western province


OTTAWA • Alberta has had the most miserable time among provinces handling COVID-19, followed closely by Ontario and Quebec, according to a new index that aims to compare provincial pandemic responses.

The so-called Misery Index, created by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, assesses pandemic responses across a broad range of metrics, including deaths per 100,000 people, excess mortality, vaccinatio­n rates, lockdown stringency, GDP losses and the assumption of public debts, among other things.

Alberta posted the highest degree of misery, according to MLI data, due to high COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, high excess mortality, and a sharp drop in GDP in 2020. Quebec had the worst response in the specific area of disease control, with a higher death toll per 100,000 than any other province. The four Atlantic provinces, meanwhile, had the lowest overall misery levels, with each outperform­ing the national average.

The new data support the argument that strict lockdowns early in a pandemic outbreak are the single-best way to minimize damage to public health and the economy, according to experts at the think-tank.

“Lockdowns have heaped misery on the larger, more populous provinces, while Atlantic Canada's bubble demonstrat­ed the importance of keeping the virus out in the first place,” said MLI senior fellow Richard Audas, who designed the index.

The results also suggest that the federal government “could have reduced the misery felt by Canadians” by shutting down foreign travel early in the pandemic, said Audas. Ottawa has long claimed that internatio­nal travel has accounted for a very small percentage of overall case counts, even as variants from foreign countries have continued to spread within provinces.

Provincial leaders in Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere have in turn introduced reactive lockdown measures 15 months after the virus first began its spread across North America.

Prince Edward Island scored best on the Misery Index with an A+ grade, followed by Nova Scotia (A), New Brunswick (B+) and Newfoundla­nd and Labrador (B). British Columbia, Saskatchew­an and Manitoba all scored C+ while Ontario, Quebec and Alberta scored D.

“Compared to the Atlantic provinces, Ontario, Quebec and Alberta in particular have not only failed to keep COVID cases and deaths under control but have also been extremely reliant on reactive and stringent lockdowns and their economies have suffered disproport­ionately while effective control of the disease spread has been elusive.”

Alberta scored lowest on the index in large part because the pandemic coincided with a downturn in oil demand, which sent unemployme­nt rates higher than elsewhere in the country. The province has assumed the most per capita debt of any province with the exception of Newfoundla­nd, who also suffered steep losses when oil prices collapsed in 2020 (they improved at the beginning of 2021).

“The economic deteriorat­ion in Alberta has been severe, especially in the resources sector, and they have experience­d one of the largest declines in GDP and largest increases in unemployme­nt as compared to the other provinces,” Audas said.

Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has struggled to accommodat­e widely divergent opinions within his own caucus over how to approach the pandemic, with the rightwing contingent calling for loosened restrictio­ns and prompt reopening of the economy.

Premier Doug Ford has also faced harsh criticism, as Ontario remains in lockdown mode and as his vaccine campaign lags Quebec. Ontario has had the most stringent lockdowns of any province, according to the index, with a score of 96.3 out of 100. Quebec ranked next highest at 89.2, followed by Alberta at 61.3.

Ontario has also seen the second-highest increase in unemployme­nt in 2021, behind only Alberta, and has assumed the second-highest level of public debt after it ran a $38.5-billion deficit in 2020, and is projected to post a $33.1-billion shortfall this year.

The Atlantic provinces saw by far the lowest mortality rate among provinces, with deaths per 100,000 people at less than one-fifth that of Quebec. Even so, vaccinatio­n rates in those provinces have been slow compared to many others, particular­ly Saskatchew­an, who has vaccinated residents at the fastest pace. Quebec's vaccine rollout has been second-fastest, and Alberta's third.

Those results point to a gap between high rates of vaccinatio­n and overall pandemic response, particular­ly in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. MLI said the data suggests that provinces have been quick to roll out the vaccines they receive, even as the federal government continues to reject claims by provincial leaders that its procuremen­t process has been too slow.

“This data counters the narrative from Ottawa that it is provinces like Ontario that have held up vaccinatio­n rollouts, rather than slow federal procuremen­t,” the report said.

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