Provinces need one trusted voice on pandemic response, experts say
TORONTO -- When comparing pandemic response and public health messaging across Canada, one name stands out: Dr. Bonnie Henry.
From the onset of the pandemic Henry, British Columbia's Provincial Health Officer, has delivered clear messaging at the helm of the province's COVID-19 response, becoming a trusted voice since early last year.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist, says Henry has been able to commandeer the respect of people living in B.C., something that can happen naturally.
“That happens organically if you’re a good leader. If you're knowledgeable, if you're empathetic, if you listen to the general public, if you lead by example, if you lead successfully and you navigate through challenging times,” Bogoch told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview Wednesday.
In some provinces, the chief public health officers are held in high regard, he added.
“You don't need people to like you, you just need people who are high caliber people to navigate these turbulent waters,” he said.
It’s not just B.C. that has been successful at getting the messaging out.
“The Atlantic Bubble, overall, have made swift decisions as soon as the case numbers have started increasing,” Dr. Lisa Salamon, an emergency room physician in Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interviewon Thursday.
For Bogoch, medical officers of health in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have also stood out throughout the pandemic.
“They're actually pretty highly regarded, and they’re good at what they do,” he said.
Bogoch says the key to simple and concise pandemic messaging is to have one competent person take charge, and not all provinces are doing that.
“I think you need someone that you trust. One person. One person that you know is your go-to,” said Salmon.
“Who do you listen to in Ontario?,” she asked. “It's always different people, who do you believe? Who do you listen to? Who is giving you the message?”
In Ontario, Retired General Rick Hillier provides vaccine updates, Premier Doug Ford holds regular press conferences, Minister of Health provides daily case numbers, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce makes announcements on school closures and rapid testing. The information is coming from an assortment of people, none of whom specialize in medicine.
“People trust the doctor,” said Salamon. “Medicine, public health, that's the doctor's wheelhouse.”
And when political figures backpedal or change their responses, it casts doubt on the pandemic response as a whole, she added.
“[Medicine] is not a politician's wheelhouse, there are so many nuances,” she said. “I think that it does cause a lot of doubt, especially when they backpedal, or they change or they get caught.”
Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University, spent the early days of the pandemic in Ontario before packing up for B.C. and she said the difference is remarkable.
“Being in the province actually makes a difference,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I feel like someone is driving the bus.”
There’s also a difference in how B.C. residents are addressed, she said.
“She really calls upon our moral values. It's kind of like an emotional plea, but it's more calling on people as British Columbians, as good people.”
Ontario could use a similar kind of messaging, said Salamon.
“I listened to the way she spoke and the messaging, and I was like, Wow, that's what we need.”