The world as we knew it was collapsing on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The previous day, the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic.
In Toronto, Lynn Henry was scheduled to fly to Victoria for a long-planned March Break vacation with her sister, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who was in the eye of the COVID-19 storm. Busy beyond belief – she had worked 68 straight days – Bonnie told Lynn that, yes, she should still visit.
“I think it was partly the state that I was in, having been really intensely going through this for almost three months by then. And I guess part of my subconscious was probably really needing somebody,” Bonnie said in an interview this week. “And then thinking, well maybe it’ll be okay. But the decisions were made so quickly as well that I didn’t have a chance to catch up with the thinking about it.”
Bonnie Henry, 54, is British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer. Lynn Henry, 55 – one year and 10 days older – is the publishing director of Knopf Canada, and one of the country’s most respected editors.
Upon landing, Lynn learned that the offices at Penguin Random House Canada, in Toronto, were closing and employees were to work remotely. She had her computer with her and knew she could do her job from Victoria. So she stayed for a month.
Lynn ended up becoming a sort of lifeline while Bonnie dealt with the pandemic around the clock, along with serious security concerns.
“It meant the world to me to be there,” Lynn said in a separate interview. “There was no waking hour where she wasn’t working or thinking about what she needed to do. … I felt like my job was, in a way, to just be a witness for her and a human connection.”
With her fly-on-the-wall view, Lynn started taking notes. Eventually, she pitched Bonnie on the idea of a book about this time. Lynn said she would do all the structural work, and somehow persuaded Bonnie, focused as she was on life-and-death decisions, to participate.
“I have no memory of actually saying I would do this,” says Bonnie, noting that Lynn has always been persuasive. “When we were kids … I walked before her and she talked before me, so she would always tell me what to do. It’s still a little bit of that.”
Be Calm, Be Kind, Be Safe: Four Weeks That Shaped a Pandemic was published this month, the same week as the anniversary of the WHO’s declaration.
The idea of the province’s top doctor writing a book mid-crisis was too much for some critics, who felt the project was tone-deaf and questioned her motives on social media.
“My greatest hope is that there not be a negative effect on Bonnie because of the book,” Lynn says. The intent of the project was to witness and document history, she adds. “It wasn’t about self-aggrandizement or anything like that.”
Both women have donated their advance payments to charity; Bonnie to the child literacy organization First Book Canada; Lynn to True North Aid, which supports northern, Indigenous and remote communities in Canada.
Lynn was born in 1965 in Halifax; Bonnie in Fredericton, in 1966. Summers were spent on Prince Edward Island, where their parents ultimately settled and still live. The family moved around a lot – their father was in the military – and that brought the sisters even closer together.
There was a sense that, Lynn says, in a world where everything was changing – new homes, new schools – they had each other. “Even in adulthood, that’s kind of the bond. No matter what, I know that Bonnie is going to be there.”
I’ve spoken to Lynn before, but there’s something new that I notice: how similar her intonation and speech patterns are to her sister’s. Bonnie’s voice has become so familiar, especially here in B.C., where her briefings are a constant in this pandemic. (Even their mother used to find it hard to tell them apart on the phone, Lynn tells me.)
I also notice that they both, when they answer a question, often begin with, “Yeah …”
Bonnie, an introvert, has been thrust into an unwanted spotlight. A line of Fluevog Shoes has been designed in her honour. A school photo of her at age 7 has graced Science World ads that declare, “The world needs more nerds.” I received a flyer for a pizza joint with her image on the box.
I ask her what it’s been like to become a household name and face.
“It’s exhausting. I’m one of those people that I get my energy from being by myself and thinking, and being out in front of the public all the time and being recognized is … a little disconcerting,” Bonnie says. “It takes a lot of energy.” Although she appreciates it, she adds, when people say hello.
She is speaking from her office on Skype; there’s a painting over her left shoulder of her catchphrase: “Be kind, be calm, be safe.” (She ends every media briefing with a version of this mantra.) Over her other shoulder is a glass model of the novel coronavirus. Both were sent to her by members of the public. There are hand-drawn cards and pictures all over her bulletin board.
In the book, Lynn talks about there being a slight separation between Bonnie Henry, her sister, and the persona that has become so well known.
“I call it ‘Doctor Bonnie Henry,’ all one word,” Bonnie says. “There’s DrBonnieHenry and then there’s me. There’s a lot of overlap obviously because what I project publicly really is what I believe.”
Privacy – not just her own – is of utmost importance to Bonnie, who has been criticized at times for a lack of transparency.
“I take very, very seriously my responsibility to preserve people’s privacy. Even when people know who it is or what school it is or which community something’s happening in … it is really, really important that they don’t hear it from me. That people know that they can trust public health with their secrets and we will help them get through this. Because I have seen so many times that it leads to bad behaviour and racism and lashing out at people.”
She says a huge stigma remains around communicable diseases – including COVID-19.
“Sometimes that can appear in the media as if I’m obfuscating or not telling a whole story, and it’s hard. Because that’s something that I absolutely believe I cannot compromise and it undermines all that we do in public health when people can’t trust us.”
During our interview, Bonnie quotes English writer Rudyard Kipling and references Albert Camus’s The Plague. Clearly she has an appreciation for culture. But she’s faced vocal criticism from the arts sector, as theatres and cinemas have been closed for months while restaurants still operate. She has also been criticized for being too lax. Why are restaurants open? And schools? Why was she so slow to embrace masks?
The situation and knowledge keeps changing, she says, and official orders change accordingly. Keeping schools open, she adds, has been a top priority.
The criticism gets to her. It keeps her awake at night, she says. She grinds her teeth. Meditating helps, as does running. The past few months have been hard, as it’s too dark in the mornings for her to feel safe running alone. Walking to work every day helps her process things.
“I do take it to heart. I try not to,” she says. “We remember the negatives more than the positives.”
I asked Lynn what it has been like seeing her sister become a public-health celebrity and the target of severe criticism and even threats.
“I find it very disconcerting,” she says. Although, she adds, “I think the criticism was inevitable.”
Bonnie was able to take a few days off in August. The sisters would meet on Galiano Island to work on the book. Lynn was getting anxious about the early September deadline. “And I’m like, ‘Why did we agree to this? Did we agree to this?’” Bonnie says. But she felt supported. “The [Health] Minister said to me, I probably owe you $300,000 in overtime, so you know, the fact that you spend a bit of your time writing your book, good on you.”
While writing a book might seem like the last thing she would want to do during a well-earned break, Bonnie found it cathartic. Lynn, who came prepared with an outline, says using the time for the writers’ retreat made sense.
“It’s not like she could go on vacation and just let all that go. So in a way, sitting down for six days to this outline and bashing away on her computer was therapeutic, I think,” Lynn says. She had had her doubts about whether they would be able to pull it off, but watching Bonnie work, she felt reassured. “It would be like a little tornado of typing. Because I was going along so slowly, plink, plink, plink.”
Bonnie wrote the first three chapters in a few days. But the Galiano retreat was cut short. One afternoon, Lynn went out for a walk and slipped on some rocks, breaking her wrist. She needed a cast and an operation. More time together followed: Lynn stayed on in Victoria, spending another month with her sister.
The book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the pandemic, but a record of those first few, seminal weeks. This is no premature “mission accomplished” banner unfurling on a U.S. navy ship while war is still waging.
“I think because it’s coming out in this moment and we’re still where we are in the pandemic, it’s a very volatile moment,” says Lynn, acknowledging the criticism. “I hope that the book itself is something that can be a record that lasts beyond this moment.”
When this moment finally ends, Bonnie Henry has an idea about what she wants to do: Travel to France and take French lessons. “Just to go somewhere,” she says, “where nobody knows me.”
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