Daily briefings by public health officers across the country have turned them into celebrities and prompted songs, T-shirts, street art and fan clubs.
This week I had the opportunity speak to Dr. Bonnie Henry. Before coronavirus and Covid-19 had entered my vocabulary, I had never heard of British Columbia’s provincial health officer.
Now, it feels like she has become one of the most famous and beloved people in Canada.
Credit…Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
She has inspired fan clubs, musical tributes, T-shirts and street art. Musician and lawyer Phil Dwyer wrote a ballad about her that his friends and son helped him record and mix remotely. Two days after it was uploaded to SoundCloud, the song had been listened to 20,000 times.
“We all share this person who comes and talks to us every day. The interesting thing is she is delivering, for the most part, really awful news: more people sick, more people dead, more people going to die. But somehow, the way she does it and the level of empathy she shows, it just seems like she is the right person for us at this time,” Mr. Dwyer, who lives on Vancouver Island, told me. “She is who we needed.”
Dr. Henry is not alone. Public health officials across Canada have become veritable folk heroes. In Quebec, Dr. Horacio Arruda’s animated face has appeared on loaves of bread, coffee cups, coloring books, windows and tattoo designs. After he announced he planned to spend the weekend inside, baking Portuguese tarts, his local fan club hosted two Facebook live session on “how to bake natas.”
In Calgary, clothing designers hooked up with a local artist to make 1,100 T-shirts featuring the face of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and three other newly famous female health officers. They quickly sold out. “She’s someone we trust, because there is no political layer,” said Emma May, a designer on the project who normally makes women’s business attire. “She has no agenda. Her agenda is science.”
The public health doctor as hero phenomenon is not unique to Canada but it’s certainly pronounced here. It’s a particular contrast to the polarized reception Dr. Anthony Fauci has faced across the border. There, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has garnered devout fans but also so many public enemies he’s had to beef up his personal security.
I called a few people to get their take on why this was happening.
Josh Greenberg, a professor of communication who focuses on public health at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that Canada’s public health doctors were filling a void created by “preening” celebrities.
“Ordinary people don’t have time for celebrity peacocks when the world is burning,” he said. “There is a void created because there is so much mistrust in politicians, mistrust in traditional institutions like journalism, that we go to these figures who were largely up until now backstage players and we are putting them onstage by making them celebrities,” he said.
Jeremy Frimer is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg who studies moral heroes. He told me that whether consciously done or not, the creation of moral heroes during times like these is an “advantageous social strategy.” They lead by example, convincing rule breakers to fall in line.
“They mobilize the masses to do their part,” he told me. “That’s the difference between social distancing and washing our hands and not.”
There is something both intimate and collective about the role they play right now, speaking directly to each of us from the television or livestream.
They are also very relatable. This week, Dr. Henry admitted during her regular update that she had been forced to cut her hair herself.
Dr. Henry told me the surge of adulation has been “scary, embarrassing almost” and “really, really touching.”
“I’m an introvert — it’s not my nature to be the face of things,” she said from her office in Victoria where she’s received flowers, home-baked cookies and cards.
“In doing our jobs as best we can most of the time, you don’t see us, because there aren’t major outbreaks,” she said, adding: “We are doing things like putting in no smoking bylaws.”
She told me that she came by her calm delivery — lauded by many as anxiety reducing — naturally. Her first job as a physician was in the Navy, where she worked on a ship in Esquimalt. “I remember basic training,” she said, “I was criticized because I don’t yell loud enough.”
She has deep experience working in epidemics, from contact tracing ebola patients in Uganda in the early 2000s to helping quarterback Toronto’s response to SARS in 2003.
“I’ve been working in outbreaks around world for 30 years,” said Dr. Henry, 54. “I never ever thought we’d be in pandemic like this.”
The day she decided schools would have to close, she said she was in shock.
“It felt like a bad dream, like the movie ‘Contagion.’ It wasn’t real.”
This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Ian Austen, Canada correspondent.
Dan Bilefsky wrote that a Montreal rapper known as Snail Kid recently faced a dilemma related to the time of pandemic: “What word rhymes with Purell?” He’s one of many musicians in Montreal who, as Dan put it, “meld the language of Shakespeare and Voltaire with the urban poetry of Montreal’s street life and the bling-bling, drug-fueled themes of some American hip-hop.” But in a province where sensitivity around language is high, their bilingual word play is not universally celebrated.
Windsor, Ontario, like much of Canada, is facing a serious but not out of control situation with the coronavirus. Detroit, its immediate and much larger neighbor, is among the hardest hit cities in the world. Each day about 1,600 nurses and health care workers from Windsor travel across the otherwise closed international border to care for patients in Detroit’s hospitals. Local health officials are trying to figure out how to limit the potential risk that travel creates.
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Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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