There is no such thing as a good pandemic. There are merely less bad pandemics. Even with well over three million COVID-19 deaths officially recorded and with numbers in the developing world almost certainly underreported, human civilization has still not had to endure anything comparable to the Black Death or even the Spanish Flu. However, the trauma that has accompanied government responses to the virus, and the battles over competing values and virtues, have damaged trust in institutions and experts. Economic shutdowns, mental stress, deferred medical diagnoses and treatments, interrupted education, curbs on civil liberties and individual freedom have all been grim.
Notwithstanding the above, the four Atlantic Canadian provinces can be said to have had a “good” pandemic, if “good” is a measure of pain endured against a net gain in value. This is not to diminish the suffering of Atlantic Canadians, be it from the virus itself or the impacts of the efforts to combat it, but the data suggest that on the global shortlist of places to ride out the pandemic, Atlantic Canada would rank high. In this article, I try to explain the Atlantic region’s comparatively, and impressively, low COVID death rate. While at the time of writing, in May 2021, Atlantic Canada remains the region of Canada with by far the best result, I mainly use data for the first year of the pandemic, beginning with the first recorded COVID-19 death in the region, in Newfoundland on March 30, 2020.
In that year, a total of only 102 Atlantic Canadians died from the virus, with 53 of those deaths – more than half – occurring in one homecare facility in Halifax and a further nine in a homecare facility in Edmundston, New Brunswick.1 Caseloads have also been low, with just over 4,500 Atlantic Canadians having officially been infected with the virus (including deaths) in the year up to the end of March 2021. While there have been many fluctuations among Canadian provinces since, the overall relative situation in terms of the per capita rate of COVID-19 deaths in the region compared to the rest of Canada has not significantly changed. For instance, while cases surged in Nova Scotia in mid-April 2021 (just beyond the timeframe of this article), rising from 42 on April 15 to over 1,400 by the end of the first week in May, deaths did not increase dramatically, rising from just 66 to 70 during the same period.2 As of May 1, 2021, on a per capita basis, for every Atlantic Canadian who has died of COVID-19, 15 Canadians in the rest of Canada have lost their lives.3
Moreover, COVID-19 has been notably less lethal in Atlantic Canada than almost anywhere else in the developed world. As table 1 reveals, were Atlantic Canada an independent country, it would have one of the lowest per capita COVID-19 death tolls among developed countries on the planet, bested only by Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.
What explains this? That will be the subject of debate for years after the pandemic, part of what is certain to be a larger debate about why different jurisdictions had differing COVID death rates, how different governments handled the pandemic, why jurisdictions with vastly different sets of measures nonetheless had similar or even counterintuitive death rates (hyperstrict California and relaxed Florida had roughly equivalent shares of their populations die from COVID-19 as of March 2021),4 what worked and what didn’t, whether severe measures were a factor in mitigating the virus’s impact and whether the costs of fighting the virus outstripped the benefits. This debate will inform politics throughout the 2020s, likely giving renewed oxygen to anti-establishment and populist movements, something I touch on later.
In identifying the relevant factors in Atlantic Canada’s relatively successful battle with COVID-19, size, low population density and relative isolation from major urban centres turn out not to be significant. Consider the comparison with low-density, highly rural American states. In May 2020, comparing Nova Scotia with the seven smallest U.S. states, Nova Scotia was in the middle of the pack in terms of per capita COVID-19 deaths. Yet by late March 2021 all Atlantic provinces had significantly lower per capita COVID-19 death rates than comparable U.S. states. The Atlantic province with the highest rate (Nova Scotia at 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people) was still doing much better than the mainland U.S. state with the lowest rate (Vermont at 36.4 deaths per 100,000 people).5
We can, however, identify a key policy factor in the region’s low rates of infection and death. The one pandemic response largely unique to the Atlantic region during the key early months was a rapid societal shutdown combined with stringent border controls. With the region effectively sealed off, the virus was quickly tamped down and largely kept out, despite periodic outbreaks. This relative success allowed for the establishment of the “Atlantic Bubble,” in which interprovincial travel restrictions were removed within the Atlantic region while borders were closed to those outside. The Bubble ran from July to November 2020, when it burst because of rising cases.
A study released by the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation in cooperation with Oxford University’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker quantified the stringency of the myriad measures taken by provincial governments to cope with the onset of the pandemic, such as mask mandates, travel restrictions and regulations affecting school operations. The data show that the four Atlantic provinces had Canada’s most stringent responses to the arrival of COVID-19, and because of that were able to adopt the most relaxed approach to the virus after the borders were shut and initial outbreaks stamped out.6
The handling of outbreaks since the summer of 2020 has met with overall success. New Brunswick’s post-Christmas spike in cases saw active COVID-19 numbers jump from 24 on January 1, 2021, to a peak of 348 on January 25, only to fall back to 36 by the beginning of March.7 Newfoundland saw a spike in active cases in February, jumping from 16 cases on February 7 to a peak of 434 cases by February 20, and yet a month later active cases were down to five.8 While the measures taken to tamp down these spikes were severe, involving full-scale localized lockdowns in some cases, they were exceptional and short.
The impact of the pandemic, or rather government responses to the pandemic, in Atlantic Canada has been generally in line with the Canadian norm in terms of economic performance and employment. In April 2020, when lockdown-induced job losses hit their peak in Canada as a whole, total employment in Canada was 15.6 per cent lower than it had been in February 2020 just before the pandemic hit. The Atlantic provinces were in the same range in terms of employment losses, ranging from 16.1 per cent in Nova Scotia to 13.7 per cent in New Brunswick.
New Brunswick’s quick containment allowed it to reopen certain economic sectors faster, enabling it to be the only Atlantic province to notably outperform the Canadian average in terms of job recovery. By June 2020 New Brunswick’s employment figures were over 97 per cent of what they had been in February, the best result in the country, compared to 91 per cent Canada-wide. In that month New Brunswick achieved a status I never thought would occur within my lifetime: the lowest unemployment rate in the country (although it was still at 10.3 per cent.) By February 2021 Nova Scotia was nearly back to the employment numbers it had had a year earlier, with New Brunswick not far behind. Newfoundland, however, was last in the country in terms of year-on-year employment recovery.9
Overall, the experience of the pandemic response–induced global recession has been relatively mild in Atlantic Canada compared to the rest of Canada and major countries in the developed world, as table 2 shows.
The economic impacts of the pandemic were not evenly distributed across the Atlantic region, or across employment sectors. Annualized total employment figures for Atlantic Canada declined by 4.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, but employment dropped by 16.7 per cent in the information, cultural and recreation sector and by 15.4 per cent in the accommodation and food services sector, reflecting the shutdown of hospitality and travel. Natural resource extraction, construction, retail, and transportation and warehousing also saw disproportionate job losses. Meanwhile, employment in the technical and scientific sectors, finance/insurance/real estate and public administration actually grew between 2019 and 2020.10
The diverse impacts of the pandemic on different economic sectors will play a notable role in the region’s long-term recovery. A February 2021 report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council assessed the long-term vulnerability of different parts of Atlantic Canada to the pandemic’s economic fallout. Unsurprisingly, largely rural areas, where 36 per cent of the workforce is dependent on natural resources – fishing and tourism – were the most vulnerable, with the least vulnerable concentrated around the urban centres of Fredericton, Halifax, Moncton and Saint John, where 26 per cent of the workforce is in sectors most affected by the pandemic.11
That said, there are reasons for optimism in rural Atlantic Canada. The pandemic revealed the ease, if not outright desirability, of working remotely for people in Canada’s high-priced megacities. For someone from greater Toronto, moving to Saint John or Fredericton is a move to a small town, not the move to the “big city” that it is for New Brunswick rural dwellers. Many former city dwellers were moving to small-town and rural areas in the region even before the pandemic. Between 2015 and 2020, eight of New Brunswick’s nine nonurban counties experienced net positive interprovincial migration, just as, in some cases, immigration offset emigration.12 Between the start of 2018 and the autumn of 2020 New Brunswick experienced a net inflow of 2,641 people from Ontario, the largest net transfer of population from Ontario to New Brunswick in 42 years.13
What will the pandemic’s ultimate effect be on Atlantic Canada and its politics? The postpandemic world will be dominated by fallout from the decisions made by the political class in response to COVID-19, with a swirl of argument, counterargument, information, misinformation and disinformation circling in an environment coloured by generational resentment, distrust of self-declared and actual experts and technocrats, widening class conflict, and uneven provincial, regional, national and global economic recoveries.
Governments in the postpandemic world willing and able to be self-critical about the measures enacted and their impact are more likely to survive the rising tide of revolt informed by conspiracy and driven by COVID fatigue. They will need to carve out a space for legitimate and rational critiques around the wisdom of various pandemic measures. Failure to do so will only drive the discontented toward conspiracy theorists. Because of its relative success in managing the pandemic, Atlantic Canada will likely avoid the worst of the backlash, though it will not be immune. Indeed, paradoxically, governments in the region may become victims of their own success, forced to justify measures that may seem extreme in hindsight precisely because they spared their populations the suffering seen in other provinces and countries.
Atlantic Canadians are ready and eager to resume normal life but governments there as elsewhere will have to rebuild the social fabric and promote social trust. The region’s relative isolation has always produced a certain wariness about outsiders or even residents returning “from away” – feelings likely to have been exacerbated by governments telling their citizens to be wary of one another for over a year. A case in point: at the end of 2020 rotational workers returning to Newfoundland from their jobs outside the province and their families found themselves targets of public shaming over fear that they would import the virus.14 This sort of xenophobia should fade with the pandemic’s end, but it should nonetheless be addressed. With the region ever more attractive to newcomers, the struggle to change old attitudes will be critical to their being welcomed.
There is a positive side to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Atlantic Canada: it has nurtured a more robust sense of regional interest and encouraged cooperation at the political level. This is not to say that Maritime union is on the horizon. Despite the objective appeal of uniting three small provinces with a combined population of under two million, too many questions remain unanswered. Which city would be the capital? How would the inevitable layoffs and movement of civil servants be managed? What would be the status of the French language in such a province? New Brunswick manages to maintain broad anglophone acceptance for official bilingualism with a francophone population of 32 per cent. This would be nearly impossible to sell in a new Maritime province where francophones make up only 15 per cent of the population.15 Atlantic Canada’s history is littered with failed efforts to promote greater economic and political cooperation, so any effort at harmonization and cooperation will have to be undertaken with care.16
However, greater cooperation and harmonization of policies could accelerate in the postpandemic Maritimes, given the historically unique nature of the circumstances the region has faced. As the region has become more aware of its functioning as a single economic unit, harmonization of labour regulations and professional credentialing and a reduction if not outright elimination of interprovincial protectionism may gain traction. Even certain functions of government could be regionally pooled or managed, as is already the case with the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. Given fears of lost provincial political control and local public sector employment, pursuing such policy goals will not be easy, but the pandemic experience may make them more politically saleable than they have been in decades. When we finally toss aside our masks and stop social distancing, a renewed regional identity along with shared experiences of cooperation may well equip Atlantic Canada to make the most of the opportunities as it emerges from the “splendid isolation” of the COVID-19 era. Bring on the day.