Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is shown at middle surrounded by some of the top federal and provincial health officers working to combat it. Clockwise from top left: Dr. Theresa Tam (Canada), Dr. Bonnie Henry (B.C.), Dr. Horacio Arruda (Quebec), Dr. Kieran Moore (Ontario), Dr. Brent Roussin (Manitoba), Dr. Deena Hinshaw (Alberta), Dr. Robert Strang (Nova Scotia) and Dr. Saqib Shahab (Saskatchewan).

THE CANADIAN PRESS, NIAID-RML/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Margaret MacAulay, Patrick Fafard and Adèle Cassola are researchers with the Global Strategy Lab at York University and the University of Ottawa. Professor Fafard is also faculty in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Few public servants are as well-known as Canada’s chief medical officers of health (CMOH). People in the role, such as Bonnie Henry in B.C., Deena Hinshaw in Alberta, and Theresa Tam at the federal level, were once the stars of daily press conferences, but over the summer, some have become less prominent. However, as the Delta-driven fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we can expect these high-profile doctors to resume their regular media appearances.

For many CMOHs, a fourth wave of the pandemic not only marks the return of vigilance but also the pressures of the spotlight. Several of these officials were initially celebrated in the media as public health heroes and charismatic parental figures. But inevitably some experienced the disadvantages of viral fame: personal attacks, targeted harassment, and calls for their resignation.

Story continues below advertisement

Each provincial government chooses their preferred mix of public health measures. CMOHs are simultaneously tasked with interpreting complex scientific evidence to advise ministers on these choices, explaining government policies, sometimes managing health departments, and reassuring citizens that their governments are prepared to lead them back to “normal.” Their independent scientific expertise and authority serve to enhance public trust in government decisions.

However, CMOHs’ role as the government’s central public health and scientific adviser has been challenged. In some cases, this is because other expert bodies have become prominent (e.g., Ontario’s Science Table). In others, it is because politicians are framing their CMOHs as decision-makers. For example, Alberta’s Health Minister Tyler Shandro argued that the decision to end isolation requirements for COVID-19 cases and contacts “came from [Alberta’s CMOH] Dr. Hinshaw.” This reflects a common pattern of politicians claiming to “follow the science.” But this is not how governments make important policy decisions. CMOHs may play a key role in the process, but we elect politicians to make the tough choices.

Some argue that CMOHs should be public-health watchdogs holding governments to account rather than serving as their trusted advisers. In the fall of 2020, many called for Ontario’s CMOH David Williams to push harder and more publicly for stricter public health measures. Concerns regarding the pace of reopening in several provinces in order to bolster the economy have led some to describe CMOHs as “toothless” and in desperate need of greater autonomy. However, the same person cannot advise the minister in the morning and publicly criticize the government in the afternoon.

These issues have not only emerged in Canada. Our analysis of the CMOH role in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland reveals common tensions in the design of the office and questions about when public health officials should speak out, resign, or exercise independent authority. These similarities point to the shared role of these countries’ CMOHs as public servants. Yet we can also learn from the significant variation in how the role is structured in different places. For example, in the Australian state of Queensland, the government moved to enhance the CMOH’s decision-making power during the pandemic.

Across jurisdictions, the increased scrutiny of CMOHs during pandemic times draws our attention to the importance of institutional design in public health policy-making. How the CMOH is appointed, their degree of autonomy, and the scope of their management and advisory roles all shape the trajectory of the role. These are more important than whether an individual CMOH is charismatic, courageous, or a gifted communicator. We must ask why the role exists and whether the pandemic requires that we rethink what they do and how they do it. Can the CMOH simultaneously be a senior government adviser, public expert, policy advocate, public health manager, and government spokesperson? In times of crisis, when should we rely on the independent authority of the CMOH? How do we balance the need for robust science-informed policy with the need to make decisions that respond to the electorate’s diverse and competing needs and concerns?

With politicians approaching the podium this fall to make perhaps daily announcements, they will share the limelight with their CMOHs. As we turn to evaluating government performance during the pandemic, we need to consider not just the choices made by elected leaders but also the role of the CMOH and whether changes are necessary for the next time this happens. Because there will be a next time.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies