What do you do with a Misery Index when people aren’t feeling miserable anymore?
That’s the dilemma facing the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which concocted a Global COVID Misery Index four months ago to track how well Canada was doing in the fight against COVID-19, compared to 14 other advanced economies.
The results were bad. Canada came out as 11th out of the 15 overall, and the institute was able to state that “Canada’s performance has been revealed to be well below average.” Norway was No. 1 and New Zealand was No. 2.
Yet the institute, which leans right despite its name (Sir Wilfrid Laurier is about as Liberal as you can get), has little use for the current government and its centre-left policies. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the promised weekly updates to the misery index have disappeared, now that Canada boasts world-beating vaccination rates while cases of COVID tumble and the economy revs up.
The index was last updated on June 17 and the institute says it may do another update sometime soon but then forget the whole thing and move on to other priorities. “There seemed to be a decline in interest in doing the weekly updates,” says Richard Audas, a Canadian academic living in New Zealand who devised the index.
That wasn’t the atmosphere in the winter when the institute breathlessly launched its misery index, calling it “the only tool to comprehensively measure and compare the short and long-term consequences to human wellbeing during this challenging time.” Brian Lee Crowley, the Institute’s managing director, called the index’s data “irrefutable.”
In May, Crowley and Audas co-authored an op-ed in The Spectator, a conservative U.S. publication, using the index to explain how Canada had flubbed its pandemic response and apologized to Americans for our “smug complacency” in light of America’s brilliant response to the pandemic. They declared that “the pandemic nightmare will end earlier in the U.S. than it will in every other country in our Index and well ahead of Canada.”
So much for predictions.
The index also came in for praise from the usual suspects at the National Post, the Toronto Sun, and Tory MPs.
If you’ll recall, when the index was launched in March, Canada was still struggling with a slow rollout of vaccination, particularly compared to the U.S. and the U.K. The reason was clear — a lack of supply from vaccine makers — but it caused no end of attacks on the Trudeau government and self-flagellation by Canadians. The vaccine shortage and an uptick in cases resulted in public-health measures like store closings, school cancellations and a curfew in Quebec. Yet the misery index, whether by design or happenstance, showed Canada performing worse than one would have expected.
That’s because of the way the Macdonald-Laurier Institute decided to measure misery, reflecting its own biases. When it came to the actual impact of the disease, Canada did relatively well, gaining a B grade from the index and came in sixth overall. Our case rate was one-quarter of that in the U.S. Death rates, hospitalization and intensive care numbers were also much better.
But the institute added two other measures of misery. One was called the “misery response”, which included vaccination rates but also the stringency of lockdowns. Reflecting its libertarian bent, the Institute considered these public health measures “a loss in liberty.”
So Canada got marked down for its poor vaccination performance, which makes sense, but also for taking measures to actually stop the spread of the disease, like closing bars and restaurants and telling us to work from home.
In other words, if Canada had decided to act like Texas and Florida, ignore the virus and let the good times roll, we would have scored higher. Canada ended up getting a D grade on its misery response, ending up 14 out of 15 in the rankings.
Canada also came a cropper on economic response and scored a D again, ranking 13 out of 15, and the highest weighting to its overall result. Canada got poor grades because of the heavy impact of the pandemic on GDP and unemployment but also because the Trudeau government had decided to spend heavily to subsidize laid off workers and provide assistance to business, thereby offsetting the pandemic’s worst economic impacts.
In May, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development praised governments for taking those kinds of actions, noting that “discretionary fiscal support was necessary, given the unprecedented scale and nature of the shock. Without such a decisive fiscal response, the loss of income and employment would have been greater and the associated increase in income inequality larger.”
But the Macdonald Laurier Institute doesn’t think much of government spending. Perhaps it would have preferred Canada take Mexico’s path, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rejected deficit spending to prop up the economy, and poverty rates have soared as the pandemic ripped through the country.
Yes, higher deficits and debts will eventually lead to steeper interest payments and perhaps even higher taxes on Canadians. Yet I think most people would take that long-term cost any day to avoid the prospect of millions of Canadians and Canadian businesses losing their livelihoods if the government had decided to keep the purse strings tight. That would have been true misery.
Audas, the index’s architect, agrees the extra spending was needed, but adds, “This does come at a cost, and this public debt will need to be repaid. Repaying this means less money to spend on other government services or higher taxes, both of which will increase our misery in the future.”
We did lots wrong at the start of the pandemic, by keeping borders open too long and failing to protect the elderly, but, in the end, Canada’s astute vaccine-procurement strategy and delivery of vaccines, its adherence to strict public health measures, and its generous spending on mitigation spending may have served us well.
But the Macdonald-Laurier Institute isn’t interested in that sort of picture, so it’s stopped counting. It already got the headlines it wanted months ago.
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