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Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa arrives to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Aug. 4, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Chief public health officer Theresa Tam says the racist, misogynistic abuse she’s faced during the pandemic have been a source of personal difficulty, and underscore the growing threat posed by the proliferation of misinformation about COVID-19.

“Being a visible woman from a visible minority background, if you like, was very difficult because of all the disinformation about origins of viruses and the politicization … of all of the beginnings of the pandemic, was quite difficult, as you can imagine,” Dr. Tam said.

Dr. Tam made her comments in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, in which she offered a rare glimpse at her personal experience and perspective leading Canada through the worst public health crisis in a century.

COVID-19 is the first pandemic to play out during a time when social media plays such a large role in society, Dr. Tam said, and it’s become increasingly clear that the online spread of false information and conspiracy theories about vaccines and treatments is causing irreparable harm to society.

Correcting COVID misinformation does not equate to cancel culture

“Misinformation causes real harm and potentially kills, I think, in the end,” she said.

Dr. Tam has faced criticism about missteps and mistakes made throughout the pandemic, such as the failure to act with enough urgency in early 2020 and delays in updating policies to recognize that COVID-19 spreads more easily than initially believed.

But she has also faced harmful, hateful abuse because she is a racialized woman. One high-profile example came in April, 2020, when former Conservative MP and leadership hopeful Derek Sloan falsely suggested that Dr. Tam, who was born in Hong Kong, worked for China and was involved in covering up information about the virus, which is believed to have originated in that country. The comments echoed a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence since the start of the pandemic, due in large part to mis- and disinformation about the virus.

“We’ve got to come to terms, I think as a society, with the fact that this happens in Canada,” she added. “Harassment, inappropriate behaviour, racism, needs to be tackled head on. It cannot be condoned and I think that’s the bottom line.”

She said she’s thankful for the responsibilities she’s been given as Canada’s chief public health officer.

“I’m an immigrant. I’m a newcomer, really, in the whole history of Canada and I’m really grateful to be here, she said. “And to be in such a privileged position to play a part in a historic public health societal challenge.”

Rather than focus on the negative words and abuse, Dr. Tam said she tries to focus on the positive: what’s gone well and how far Canada has come since the start of the pandemic.

“When people are trying to be divisive, I try to be cohesive, and when people are spreading hate, I try to do the exact opposite,” Dr. Tam said.

One thing that helps, Dr. Tam said, is the fact she’s an introvert, which she said allows her to focus on the task in front of her.

Despite the serious nature of mis- and disinformation, Dr. Tam said the high uptake of vaccines in Canada highlights strong levels of trust in the public health system.

But COVID-19 vaccines for children are a different story, as they are still lagging. Only 42 per cent of children 5 to 11 have received two doses of a vaccine. With the approval of vaccines for children as young as six months on the horizon, building trust with parents will be critical, Dr. Tam said.

“We need to close the gap on pediatric vaccinations,” she said. “I think reaching parents and their communities, and parent influencers, and children and education at school is very important.”

Dr. Tam said the Public Health Agency of Canada is working on several fronts to combat mis- and disinformation related to the pandemic and vaccines, and has approximately $14-million so far on community-based projects designed to promote factual information. She said it’s important to provide funding to community groups and leaders because they are the ones that have established relationships with individuals who may not trust health officials.

“We let the trusted voices have whatever they need to do, to say and share and amplify evidence-based information,” Dr. Tam said.

She added that part of those efforts also involve working with doctors and other health professionals who use social media to dispense evidence-based messages.

“They don’t want to see me on TikTok,” a laughing Dr. Tam said. “Not that I wasn’t game for it.”

As for what’s next, Dr. Tam has previously said the pandemic would not be over until COVID-19 becomes more predictable. While there are relatively high levels of immunity in the population now, we still haven’t reached a place of stability, she said.

“I don’t believe we are seeing a regular pattern to this virus yet,” Dr. Tam said. “I expect turbulence. This is not going to be a smooth ride but we have a whole range of tools that we’ve learned to try to keep the waves from being really disruptive.”

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