TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER, 7  - Susan Delacourt
Logo headshots of Toronto Star staff shot in Star studio.
December 7, 2015

Opinion: Don’t blame Trump for vaccine wait

Canadians will be getting COVID-19 vaccinations after Americans, Justin Trudeau has admitted, and by the time that happens, no one will be able to blame President Donald Trump.

The prime minister has had to tell Canadians a lot of hard truths through this pandemic.

But Trudeau’s blunt acknowledgment on Tuesday is a truth that will keep rippling through the weeks and months ahead — every time Canada finds itself behind others in the international queue for vaccines.

“Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” Trudeau said.

What’s worse, at least politically, is that Canada can’t blame Trump-style protectionism for this, as it did — quite forcefully — when the outgoing president invoked America-first orders for pandemic relief supplies last spring.

Trump will have moved out of the White House by the time widespread vaccinations start rolling out in Canada, replaced by a president who has sent some pretty strong signals this week that the U.S. will be far less aggressively protectionist in future.

Joe Biden’s appointee for secretary of state is a veteran foreign-policy expert, Antony Blinken, who actually wrote a piece in January 2019 headlined: “America First is only making the world worse.”

That’s good news for Canada, and especially the Trudeau government, also heavily invested in multilateralism.

On any other week, in any normal year, in fact, Trudeau and his government would be publicly cheering for this sharp shift in direction from Trump to Biden.

But this isn’t a normal year, or even a normal transition. While Trump has given sort of a green light for transition to begin formally this week, all Biden’s work on the changeover of power is happening mostly below the radar, especially when dealing with foreign governments.

The Trudeau government, which did open up some channels to Trump’s team before it took power in 2017, is not saying anything publicly about whether it is currently doing the same with Biden’s incoming crew.

The two situations are not exactly parallel, because Trudeau and his advisers are already acquainted with Biden Democrats and thus have less to do by way of cold introduction than they did with Trump.

Trudeau doesn’t even need to introduce himself to Biden’s new climate czar either — John Kerry, as it happens, was also on the Aga Khan’s island during a holiday trip in 2016-17 that turned out to be a big ethics gaffe for the prime minister.

All these pre-existing connections are handy, given that Canada still has to work with a president hostile to being replaced by Biden, amid a second wave of COVID that is keeping the Canada-U.S. border closed.

No one is making get-to-know-you trips between Ottawa and Washington at the moment, as Trudeau’s aides did discreetly in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration.

Regardless, it wouldn’t change the cold truth about the vaccine competition. Canada just has to accept that it’s going to be America first with U.S. vaccines, Britain first with U.K. vaccines and so on.

That’s not the fault of pandemic protectionism either, Trudeau also said on Tuesday — it’s Canadaís fault.

In keeping with the hard-truth theme of the day, the prime minister candidly said Canada had dropped the ball in the homegrown vaccine industry.

“We do not have mass-production capacity for vaccines in Canada,” Trudeau said. “We did decades ago, but since that time, we no longer have domestic capacity.”

I tried to inquire further with the PMO about precisely where this ball had been dropped — who or what was Trudeau blaming with this reference to abandonment of that “domestic capacity?”

No clear answer was forthcoming immediately.

The point, though, should not be lost on anyone, especially in the weeks and months ahead, as Canadians are seeing people in other countries lining up for vaccines that haven’t yet arrived in this country. That too will “suck,” to borrow the PM’s words of a couple of weeks ago.

Canada has bought more vaccine provisions per capita than any other major country, as the Economist reported recently.

But that was precisely to compensate for the lack of a vaccine to call Canada’s own; one to which Canadians would be first entitled.

Trudeau promised that this glaring gap would be addressed for future pandemics.

“We won’t be caught short-handed as we did this time,” the PM said.

The lesson?

Even with Trump and his America-first doctrine on the retreat in the United States, the pandemic keeps turning all of us into protectionists — even in Canada, and especially for the vaccine scramble to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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