A photograph of two tour boats at Niagara Falls has summed up the dramatic differences in international responses to the pandemic – even across both sides of one border.

The photograph, taken by a Reuters photographer last week, captures a Canadian tour boat cruising near another tour boat owned by an American company as tourists take in the views.

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And in a single shot, it exposes a clash of ideology in both nations’ handling of the virus crisis: the Canadian boat is almost empty, carrying only a handful of tourists due to physical distancing measures, while the American boat is packed with tourists in a sea of blue ponchos.

Niagara Falls is a major tourist drawcard that straddles the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York, with its water falling on both sides of the international border.

The Canadian boat, operated by Hornblower Niagara Cruises, has a capacity of about 700 people but is only allowing six tourists at a time due to Ontario’s strict social distancing rules, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, the operator of the boat on the US side, Maid of the Mist, can operate at 50 per cent capacity, or 230 passengers at a time.

“You can see why the pandemic is raging in the States but not in Canada when you look at the difference between the boats,” a Canadian tourist told reporters, CNN reported.

Maid of the Mist said the tour operated according to New York State guidelines with anti-COVID measures enforced on board.

“Guests are reminded about social distancing when they board the vessel and distance markers are placed throughout the facility,” the company told New York broadcaster 2WGRZ.

“They are required to wear face coverings during their visit, as there are areas within the facility, including on board the vessel, where social distancing may not be possible.”

The vice president of Hornblower Niagara Cruises told The Guardian he would love to be able to sell as many tickets as the US operators but it was important to keep Ontario safe.

“When you look at what’s happening in Ontario or Canada, there’s clearly a difference,” he said.

“That’s clearly evident in terms of what’s happening with respect to the number of infections and recoveries and deaths proportionate to the population base of our two countries.”

Ontario and New York have had vastly different experiences during the pandemic.

Ontario, with a population of 14.5 million, has recorded 38,000 virus cases and 2755 deaths, while New York – which was at one point considered the global epicentre of the pandemic – has seen 418,000 cases and 32,600 deaths. Its population is slightly larger at 19.5 million.

The disparity can be attributed to various factors, including Canada’s universal health care system, travel bans and quarantine measures, as well as attitudes and rules regarding face masks and physical distancing, The Guardian reported.

While US President Donald Trump has been criticised for downplaying the severity of the crisis, in Canada – where the outbreak is considered to be under control – officials have been consistent on public health messaging.

In March, during the early days of the pandemic, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into quarantine when his wife became sick, while Mr Trump boasted there would be “packed churches” for Easter.

University of Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr Isaac Bogoch said the two countries’ responses to the health crisis were “like night and day”.

“From coast to coast, we have the epidemic in Canada under excellent control. We’ve been able to suppress cases at the community level. Of course, we’re still seeing some small outbreaks, but we’ve been able to suppress the vast majority of the infection and rapidly identify small outbreaks,” he told The Guardian.

“I feel awful for them (in the US). They’re our friends and our neighbours. And obviously, the epidemic is getting worse, not better.”