Despite its slow start, Canada is now lapping U.S. on COVID vaccination. Is right-wing media to blame?
There’s no country that’s more like the United States than Canada, its neighbor to the north. But as the hyper-contagious Delta variant spreads — and as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations start to rise among unvaccinated Americans in state after state — a key difference between the two countries has emerged.
With nearly 70 percent of its population now at least partially vaccinated, Canada is well on its way to reaching herd immunity. The U.S. — which has stalled out around 56 percent — is not.
Experts say that the proliferation of right-wing media — including OAN, Newsmax and Fox News, whose U.S. opinion hosts have spent months insisting that COVID-19 vaccines “could be dangerous; that people are justified in refusing them; and that public authorities have overstepped in their attempts to deliver them” — may be one of the biggest reasons why.
“In the U.S., news sources have become politicized in a way that has just not happened in Canada,” says Aengus Bridgman, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal, and the lead author of a recent study on the impact of U.S. pandemic misinformation on Canadian social media users. “Here, right- and left-leaning people both trust our large, important media organizations, and polarized media have been completely unsuccessful in comparison to their U.S. counterparts.
“Having that core anchor is really important during a pandemic,” Bridgman adds, “because what we find is that people who consume traditional media direct from source in the Canadian context have far fewer misperceptions, are less likely to break social distancing norms and are more likely to want to get vaccinated.”
Falling behind Canada in vaccinations wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In fact, the U.S. — which locked up most of North America’s early doses — had a huge head start in inoculating its population against COVID-19. By the end of the first week of April, the American vaccination rate (33 percent of the total population) was twice as high as Canada’s (16.5 percent). For months, Canadians watched with envy as their American counterparts were inoculated and started to enjoy some semblance of normalcy.
Then the momentum shifted. Canada’s mass vaccination drive began in earnest and the U.S.'s faltered. Initially, Canada prioritized the first dose and delayed the second; as a result, Canada was soon getting shots in arms at a faster rate than the United States. By May 20, Canada had closed the first-dose gap.
That much, at least, was attributable to pent-up demand and a different dosing schedule. But what happened next hinted at a deeper U.S.-Canada divide. As spring turned to summer, the number of Americans who’ve received at least one dose flatlined. It's ticked up just 4 points (to 56 percent) over the last month.
But the same number soared in Canada. This week it will hit 70 percent.
Meanwhile, Canada has shortened the time between doses to 28 days, and the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated — currently 47 percent to the U.S.'s 48 percent — is rising so rapidly that it is projected to overtake the U.S. in a matter of days. It’s also expected to keep rising well into the summer, as nearly all first-dosers complete their vaccine regimen.
To get a sense of how high Canada’s full-vaccination rate might go, consider that the country has already vaccinated 80 percent of its eligible population (age 12 and older). The U.S. has vaccinated just 65 percent. This suggests that only Canada is on track to hit the kind of vaccination threshold — 75 percent or higher, according to experts — that can keep Delta and other emerging coronavirus variants from triggering serious, recurring outbreaks (and protect those who can’t receive the vaccine due to preexisting health conditions).
The question now is what accounts for such a big gap between neighbors that otherwise have so much in common.
To be sure, Canada (unlike the U.S.) has a national health care system that may have helped speed up distribution in the early stages of its mass vaccination campaign. But now that vaccines are widely and easily available in both countries, the difference no longer has anything to do with delivery.
Instead, it has to do with demand.
Vaccine acceptance is much stronger in Canada than in the U.S. According to Morning Consult’s tracking survey of 75,000 people across 15 countries, a full 30 percent of U.S. adults say they are either unwilling to get vaccinated (19 percent) or uncertain about it (11 percent). That’s one of the highest hesitancy rates in the world — and it’s nearly double the corresponding rate in Canada, where just 11 percent are unwilling and just 6 percent are uncertain. Other polls have shown that as few as 6 percent of Canadians say they will never get vaccinated — and that nearly 90 percent want to be inoculated as soon as possible.
Vaccine hesitancy is a complex phenomenon, with many causes. But experts say there’s one big distinction between the U.S. and Canada that may help explain why 67 percent of the people who live in the Canadian province of Manitoba have already gotten a shot, compared with just 44 percent of the people who live right across the border in North Dakota: vastly different levels of political polarization around COVID-19 in general — and COVID-19 vaccines in particular — due in part to a less polarized media environment.
Canadian politicians “of all parties have increasingly emphasized the crisis and reinforced the messages of mainstream expert communities,” Eric Merkley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues wrote in a study last year. “Unlike in the United States, response to the coronavirus is not structured by partisanship, at least not at the moment.”
The data is clear on U.S. partisanship and the pandemic. According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 93 percent of 2020 Joe Biden voters say they have either been vaccinated or plan to get vaccinated; just 59 percent of Donald Trump voters say the same.
Likewise, a mere 3 percent of Biden voters say they will “never” get vaccinated. Among Trump voters, that number is more than 10 times as high (32 percent). No other U.S. demographic group is so dead set against vaccination.
The partisan divide in the U.S. over vaccination is only growing. As of April 22, the average vaccination rate in U.S. counties that voted for Trump was 20.6 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation; at the time, the vaccination rate in Biden counties was just 2.2 percentage points higher. Yet by May 11, the vaccination gap between Trump and Biden counties had tripled to 6.5 percent; by July 6, it had nearly doubled again, to 11.7 percent.
According to Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, vaccinations are now “a better predictor of state voting patterns in 2020 than education, racial composition, or almost any other demographic factor.”
“We almost never see this high a correlation between variables in the social sciences,” Masket recently explained.
Canada doesn’t have the same problem. Yes, Canadian anti-vaxxers also tend to be conservative — but Canadian conservatives as a whole are far more open to vaccination than their American counterparts. According to a June Abacus poll, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Canadian Conservative Party voters said they were already vaccinated or planned to get a shot in short order, while just 16 percent said they would never get vaccinated — half the share of Trump voters who say the same.
Acceptance among Liberal Party voters was higher (87 percent), but it was nothing like the 30-plus-point chasm between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. In a similar vein, Canada’s large provinces have all vaccinated 65 to 75 percent of their populations with at least one dose — unlike in the U.S., where nearly 40 percentage points separate Mississippi (37 percent) and Vermont (75 percent). Vaccines just aren’t as polarized in Canada.
Media exposure may help explain some of the divergence. In 2003, Fox News’ first application for a broadcast license in Canada was rejected by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, because regulators were concerned about the effect of foreign competition on Canadian networks; a few years earlier, in 2000, the same body approved a proposal for Fox News Canada, but it never got off the ground.
Today, Fox News is available in Canada only via satellite subscription or certain cable providers. It wields little influence.
The opposite is true in the U.S., of course. In the mid-2000s — about a decade after Fox News was launched — researchers estimated that the network had convinced “3 to 8 percent of its new viewers to vote Republican.” A study this year found that (controlling for other factors) communities with higher numbers of Fox News viewers were less likely to comply with stay-at-home orders to fight the virus.
The seeds of vaccine skepticism exist everywhere. But Fox News and other conservative media sources such as Newsmax and One America Network — along with social media — have amplified them, transforming a fringe sentiment into a partisan litmus test.
In March, a PRRI survey found that Republicans who placed the most trust in mainstream television news sources (broadcast networks, local news, public television) were 26 percentage points more likely to be vaccine accepters than those who placed the most trust in far-right networks such as Newsmax and OAN; they were also 20 points less likely to be vaccine refusers. And even in March — before the network’s hosts started to stoke vaccine skepticism every night — trust in Fox News was also associated with a lower level of acceptance and a higher level of refusal.
Before the era of President Ronald Reagan, partisan networks like Fox News couldn’t exist in the U.S. because regulators blocked media conglomerates and prohibited broadcasters from espousing a party-line perspective; by the late 1980s, those rules had been repealed.
But Canada never experienced a similar shift. Now, decades later, Canadians still have “relatively high trust in the traditional news media,” “relatively homogenous media preferences with only a marginal role for hyperpartisan news” and “fairly low levels of ideological polarization overall,” according to a 2020 report from the Digital Democracy Project, a joint initiative from the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.
The vast majority of Canadian conservatives, in other words, resemble the few American conservatives who still trust traditional news sources: a few percentage points less likely than liberals to get vaccinated — not 25, 35 or 45 points less likely.
And when Canadians do gravitate toward COVID-19 falsehoods, it tends to be because they’re spreading misinformation from the U.S. via the internet. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Political Science, Bridgman and his colleagues found that the 200,000 most active Canadian Twitter users are “relatively more exposed to US-based information than domestic sources of information, and that exposure to US news outlets was associated with misperceptions about COVID-19.” They also found that most of the misinformation shared by Canadians on Twitter was retweeted from U.S. sources, and that Canadians who followed more American users were more likely to post misinformation.
“One of the things that is really remarkable is that U.S. media consumption and exposure on social media to U.S.-based content is really, really strongly linked with anti-vax and vaccine-hesitant attitudes,” Bridgman wrote. “The U.S. effect actually extends beyond the U.S. borders.”
Media isn’t the only reason vaccination is far less polarizing — and far more accepted — in Canada than in the U.S. At a time when Trump was resisting calling on Americans to wear masks and dismissing the virus as something that would “go away” on its own, Canada established what political scientists have described as “a unique period of cross-partisan consensus” regarding the severity of COVID and the necessity of mitigation measures.
“People tend to adopt the positions of their political leaders in times of uncertainty,” says Bridgman. It’s only natural that downplaying the threat of a virus would lead people to downplay the importance of protecting themselves from it, too.
But the United States' choose-your-own-reality media ecosystem has only reinforced those misperceptions — and now the U.S. is about to fall behind its northern neighbor on vaccinations.
In the U.S., COVID cases have risen more than 110 percent over the last two weeks; hospitalizations are up more than 20 percent. Unvaccinated Americans account for more than 99 percent of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In Canada, meanwhile, cases have declined 27 percent over the last two weeks; hospitalizations have declined 29 percent.
The Delta variant will be dominant everywhere soon enough. Canada will be as ready as any country can be. Sadly, the United States will be less prepared.
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