Rob Shaw: Nobody’s perfect, including BC’s Provincial Health Officer. But she’s vastly more experienced, qualified, and capable than literally all of her critics.
There’s only one thing our society loves more than elevating unlikely heroes into celebrities: tearing those same people right back down.
Such is the case with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the quiet public health official turned into international media sensation for her calm and reasoned handling of the COVID-19 pandemic this past year.
We’ve collectively built her to extraordinary heights of worship: the Fluevog shoes designed in her honour sold out instantly; her profiles in major media like the New York Times have been nothing short of glowing.
She didn’t want the fame. In fact, as an introvert, she’s on the record saying it made her deeply uncomfortable.
Still, we seem intent on slowly chipping away at her foundation, hoping she falls back to earth for our own enjoyment.
Wednesday night’s CTV Vancouver newscast was a perfect illustration of what Dr. Henry is now facing in the increasingly-hostile public debate about her job performance. (Side note: many other outlets had similar stories, and this isn’t a criticism of CTV Vancouver’s coverage – the station is just reflecting the larger news cycle.)
We seem intent on slowly chipping away at her foundation, hoping she falls back to earth for our own enjoyment.
The lead story, titled “B.C.’s top doctor under fire,” quoted the RCMP saying it was appalled at Dr. Henry’s “offensive” comments to a legislative committee on police reform, in which she said the RCMP has lagged behind municipal police forces in giving officers naloxone kits during the overdose crisis. Dr. Henry was right, despite the RCMP’s protestations.
Then it was on to “frustration over vaccine rollout plan” in which a lone family doctor from Victoria questioned whether B.C.’s vaccination schedule will rely too heavily on technology not accessible to seniors. The plan isn’t even public until Monday, and the doctor doesn’t appear to have one-tenth the credentials of Dr. Henry. But that didn’t matter.
Next was “growing calls to prioritize frontline workers,” a story in which an infectious disease modeller from Simon Fraser University produced a paper urging Dr. Henry to scrap her vaccination strategy and instead base it on essential worker status instead of age. There’s nothing wrong with the research, but it’s only one part of a variety of factors public health leaders like Dr. Henry are considering.
Then, a story in which Dr. Henry’s mandatory mask protocols are increasingly being flouted by angry (and stupid) British Columbians, including a gentleman who picked a fight in a Canadian Tire over wearing a mask, as well as anecdotal stories about the rise of morons who walk into stores and yell at shopkeepers over the mask requirement.
After that, a story on one million rapid test kits unused in B.C., in which Vancouver Centre MP Dr. Hedy Fry – who hasn’t practiced medicine in almost three decades – castigated Dr. Henry and the B.C. government for not deploying all the rapid tests. The reluctance to use rapid tests in B.C. is an area of legitimate debate, but Fry framed it as a question asking why the province doesn’t want to save more lives.
“If we can capture one person with a rapid test it’s one person more than we had before,” she said in a comment whose banality was only exceeded by its obviousness.
Fry is more worried about scoring points against the B.C. NDP government while her prime minister considers a snap federal election than public health policy.
All told, those five stories contained an onslaught of attacks against Dr. Henry’s decision-making by critics who can’t hold a candle to her resume.
Having teachers, who enjoy a high degree of trust, continually chip away at Dr. Henry’s credibility hurts her immeasurably over the long term.
Not present that day, but very much in the mix on most others, is the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, whose single-minded drive to boost teacher working conditions continually comes in the form of second-guessing Dr. Henry’s public health orders on masks and school safety.
Having teachers, who enjoy a high degree of trust, continually chip away at Dr. Henry’s credibility hurts her immeasurably over the long term. But the BCTF seems to think its means are justifiable as it pursues a larger political goal of smaller class sizes.
BCTF president Teri Mooring has, on more than one occasion, encouraged Dr. Henry to follow the science. It’s a familiar refrain from critics: Why, oh why, can’t Dr. Henry just follow the science?
Never mind that the people asking her to follow the science wouldn’t know a scientific paper if it hit them in the face.
Never mind they don’t read peer-reviewed publications or source material research.
Never mind even if they did they wouldn’t know how to digest the data.
Never mind they aren’t on conference calls regularly with the world’s top health officials, discussing the latest figures and trends in COVID-19 and its vaccines.
Never mind they haven’t dedicated their entire professional lives to public health planning, for decades, like Dr. Henry.
Never mind, frankly, they aren’t qualified to walk in Dr. Henry’s Fluevogs at all.
The idea that vastly less qualified critics, much less anonymized Twitter trolls are suddenly expert enough to offer credible counter opinions is laughable.
The cloak of scientific righteousness, and the accusation that someone whom you disagree with isn’t “following the science,” is one of the most common attacks you see now on the garbage dump that is social media.
It is nonsense. The idea that vastly less qualified critics, much less anonymized Twitter trolls are suddenly expert enough to offer credible counter opinions is laughable.
Yet, put a few dozen of those fools in a comment section, and it paints a picture of public dissatisfaction in Dr. Henry’s decision-making. And that has a toxic effect on the rest of us.
The rise and fall of public support in provincial health officers formed part of a fascinating story in the Edmonton Journal this past weekend titled “From heroes to scapegoats: How Canada’s regional top doctors have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It looked at how the percentage of people who say their provincial health officer has done a “good job” handling the crisis has dropped significantly since last year, as part of a larger pattern of frustration and political score-settling by a variety of politicians, critics and stakeholders across the spectrum.
Public confidence in the top doctors in Ontario and Alberta has particularly plummeted.
In B.C., the effect so far has been less dramatic.
None of this is to say Dr. Henry is perfect.
The Angus Reid data showed 89 per cent of respondents in April 2020 thought Dr. Henry was doing a good job, and that has only fallen to 80 per cent in January 2021.
But the trajectory is not in doubt – only the speed of the fall.
None of this is to say Dr. Henry is perfect.
As someone who has attended virtually all her press briefings this past year, I can tell you she has a tendency, at times, not to answer direct questions with direct answers. She can ramble. She doesn’t like admitting when she’s wrong – and although she eventually changes her position, it can take a while to get there, and frustratingly, sometimes tries to argue she hasn’t made a change at all.
She is not without faults. But she’s an exponentially better leader than any provincial politician I’ve seen during this crisis. And she’s still our best bet, by far, to get us out of this pandemic while saving the maximum amount of lives possible.
We’re still at a fragile moment, with variants threatening to take hold of our case counts and overwhelm our system.
It’s the worst time to undermine Dr. Henry’s credibility. We only hurt ourselves, and our province, by doing so.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
- Rob Shaw last checked in with a look at the now-infamous mental health self care BINGO card, and why it landed like a Zeppelin afire.
- In the very first days of the pandemic, Jody Vance’s open letter to Dr. Henry was representative of the reverential view many British Columbian had – and have – of the provincial health officer.
- Nobody is infallible. Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom explained why Dr. Henry’s “I’m asking you to do more” didn’t land with many.