Canada has more than its share of unlikely heroes: A one-legged cancer patient who ran across the country and left a priceless legacy; a Baptist preacher who, inspired by his costly childhood bout with osteomyelitis, forged a program called medicare; and even a Zamboni driver and transplant recipient who became a hockey star for a night.
Add to that list a soft-spoken public-health physician who has become the face of Canada’s response to the coronavirus pandemic-in-all-but-name.
Canada is an oasis of calm amid the global coronavirus freak-out, in no small part thanks to Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer.
Her daily media briefings are a master class in crisis communication – clear, factual and surprisingly intimate.
On Saturday, when Dr. Henry announced that a Vancouver area nursing home was the site of a coronavirus outbreak, she pleaded with the public to protect the vulnerable, particularly seniors, who are at the highest risk of viral infections.
At one point, she was overwhelmed by emotion and took a long pause to compose herself, a moment that generated a lot of media (and social-media) attention. It even spawned the Twitter account “Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club.”
Yet, the welling tears did not show Dr. Henry to be weak. Quite the opposite. It was a rare display of humanity by a public official, an unspoken recognition that behind the coronavirus numbers are real people getting sick and dying, and that many more are at risk – chief among them our parents and grandparents.
Asked later about what was going through her mind, Dr. Henry replied: “What can I say? It’s a difficult time, and I’m feeling for the families and the people dealing with this right now.”
She also allowed that she was thinking about her own elderly parents, worried that her message about the risks of coronavirus would frighten them and other seniors.
Acknowledging fear without perpetuating it is the tightrope that public-health officials must negotiate every time they speak, and no one does it better than Dr. Henry.
During SARS, she was the City of Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, responsible for communicable disease. Dr. Henry went to investigate a report of a man in his 30s believed to have tuberculosis and whose mother had just died, and quickly realized it was something else – the beginnings of one of the most costly, if not most deadly, outbreaks in Canadian history.
SARS was also a debacle because Canada’s public-health system was in a total state of disorganization and the resulting public messaging was just as bad.
Dr. Henry, who was toiling in the backrooms rather than at the microphone in that period, learned a lot from those failures.
“All tragedy is a failure of communication,” she said in an insightful interview with TVOntario.
Other than SARS, Dr. Henry has worked on the front lines of AIDS, Ebola, polio and pandemic influenza H1N1. One of the most important lessons she learned from those high-stress assignments is also communication-related, that in a crisis someone has to be in charge.
You see that, too, in her press briefings. Dr. Henry does the talking and the provincial Health Minister, Adrian Dix, stands to the right, rarely saying anything.
That’s a stark contrast to the United States, where the buffoon-in-chief Donald Trump has done immeasurable harm with his ill-informed blather and by politicizing the response to the coronavirus outbreak by putting the Vice-President in charge.
In Canada, politicians have largely deferred to the experts such as Dr. Henry and we’re all better off for it.
Mr. Dix, for his part, has nothing but admiration and praise for the provincial health officer. After Saturday’s emotional briefing, he said public health is in good hands because “she feels it, she doesn’t think it.”
In addition to her hands-on work, Dr. Henry is the co-author of Canada’s pandemic preparedness plan, a document that we’re getting ready to dust off, and the author of Soap and Water and Common Sense, a guide to staying healthy in a microbe-filled world.
Who better to give life to the sterile but all-important message that we need to stop touching our faces and start washing our hands more frequently?
In an interview with the B.C. Journal of Medicine, Dr. Henry was asked to reveal her most defining characteristic. “People tell me I’m calm, even in a crisis,” she said.
She could add relatable and impactful, imbued with a calm that comforts and soothes – a precious currency in a world where nothing is in shorter supply than trust.