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‘Words matter’: A conversation with Dr. Bonnie Henry on the pandemic's one-year anniversary

'Now is the time again to remember to re-double our efforts, to remember to be kind to each other'
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Heading into a media briefing to declare a public-health emergency, Dr. Bonnie Henry looked at the themes she had scribbled on a piece of paper.

Kindness. Calm. Safe.

It was March 17, 2020, and Henry — B.C.’s first female provincial health officer and a former navy physician — was no newcomer to infectious-disease outbreaks. An epidemiologist, she was the operational lead on the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, on the front lines of Ebola outbreaks in Uganda in 2001, and on a national committee responding to H1N1 in 2009.

She knew how fear could spread and turn into discrimination, and how restrictions could disproportionately affect women and those on the margins of society.

So that day, amid rising case counts and new deaths, notably in long-term care, Henry stood before the media and announced that restaurants, bars and pubs would be closed, allowed to provide takeout only.

It was St. Patrick’s Day. She knew there would be anger. She glanced down at the words that would become the hallmark of her approach: Now is our time to be kind, to be calm and to be safe. It’s a moment she recounts in her book Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks That Shaped a Pandemic (Penguin Random House Canada, 2020), written with her older sister Lynn Henry.

History will judge how the province handled the pandemic — the timing of closures and mandatory masks, the length of restrictions on visitors to care homes, travel bans, the use of rapid testing, how vaccines were rolled out — but that guiding moral imperative, now ­emblazoned on totebags, T-shirts, tea towels, even a pair of Fluevog shoes called “the Dr. Henry,” will likely endure.

It’s not just about being nice, says Henry, 55, in a phone interview marking the one-year anniversary of the international pandemic.

Kindness is about understanding that we’re all connected, there is a common suffering, and we can’t always know how someone else is holding themselves together, she says. Some are able to deal with uncertainty and anxiety better than others. Some have support, while others don’t. Rather than reacting, we need to take a breath and have compassion.

“I know that is one of the things that builds resilience in us as a community, and that gets us through these times of trauma,” she says.

The self-described introvert says that, from the beginning, she was aware of the importance of communication in times of crisis — how, in the face of enormous uncertainty, “words really matter and how we say things really matters.”

She also felt the grip of fear.

When the mystery illness out of Wuhan, China, was identified as a coronavirus, like SARS, she knew something about what lay ahead.

“I was having a lot of flashbacks, my anxiety knowing what could happen, and, in some ways, this was a worst-case scenario because, with SARS-1, we were able to push it back into nature, we were able to contain it, and the characteristics of this virus are different and make it that much more dangerous in many ways.”

SARS infected 8,098 people around the world and had killed 744 by the end of 2003. By ­contrast, in Canada, COVID-19 has infected about 900,000 ­people and killed more than 22,000.

Henry says that after the first wave of the pandemic last spring in B.C., she expected cases would wane in the ­summer, and they did, but she also saw the strong correlation between easing of restrictions and increased transmissions.

“It really hit home to me, probably about May, that this was a virus that was going to be sticking around with us for a while … and by the middle of summer, I was thinking that this virus was still transmitting quite a lot, even though we were ­having low rates.”

That second wave came in the late fall. More infections. Daily double-digit deaths, the majority in long-term care homes.

If she has any regrets, it’s that Canada wasn’t more effective at keeping the virus out of long-term care, where vulnerable seniors were the majority of those who died.

“We really have to do better at protecting people in long-term care, and that has to do with infrastructure, and caring, and really valuing the staff that work in care homes.”

She regrets that in October, when rates were rising slowly, she didn’t listen to her intuition and experience and put in place greater restrictions earlier, before transmissions took off again.

Daily case counts were hovering around 300 a day, and then, over one weekend in the Fraser Health region, they spiked to 600. Suddenly, “exponential growth” was a reality.

“But you know, I don’t make these decisions in isolation. I make them with my public health colleagues and they were not as concerned,” Henry says. “In retrospect, I probably should have listened to my spidey sense.”

Henry rejects the notion that a snap election called by Premier John Horgan for October was to blame. “Oh, that had nothing to do with the election,” she says. “It was really the decision-making my team was doing.”

Henry says she talked with chief medical health officers in the various regions of B.C. more than once a day, and they felt “we were on top of it.” It’s one of the realities of working in public health, she says: You’re always in the position of doing too much or not enough.

“Early on, I was very careful to err on the side of doing too much,” she says. Indoor social gatherings then and now were the greatest source of transmissions. “We maybe should have done a bit more.”

But doing more also drew a backlash.

Henry says to those who saw nothing but increasing restrictions — business owners forced to close, anti-maskers, certain groups on social media, the frustrated and fed up — she was viewed as the root of all evil. There were protests outside her office. Death threats.

“The psychology of what we’re dealing with leads some people to react that way, and I do believe that it is our collective support for each other that helps mitigate the impacts of these things,” Henry said during a media conference in February where she acknowledged she has a security system at her house.

It’s always a balancing act for public health officials in a pandemic — balancing the need to reduce transmissions, serious illness and deaths with understanding the impact of restrictions — on mental health, for instance.

Henry says she knew from the data that closing schools is “the single most negative thing” for families, regardless of where they live, their income or family size. School closures have a detrimental effect on children that can last for a lifetime in some cases, she says.

“So that’s why we really focused in the summer and the fall on safe return [to school]. Despite some of the public rhetoric, it really has been life-saving and life-changing for many children and families.”

During a March 7, 2020, news conference in Vancouver, Henry’s voice faltered and she became emotional as she announced an outbreak at a North Vancouver long-term care home. This was the scenario she had dreaded. She knew deaths of seniors would follow.

“I fought back tears as my voice quivered with emotion, and I stopped to collect myself,” writes Henry in Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe. “I was concerned that breaking down in such a public way would scare people and only make the situation worse.”

On the one-year anniversary of the international pandemic, she once again becomes visibly emotional talking about the losses of the past year — from an accumulation of losses of small joys to the loss of lives. She mentions a saying: “Common suffering builds strong bonds.”

“This unrelenting uncertainty that we have all been through together takes its toll, and I know that,” she says. “Now is the time we need to reach out again. We need to remember each other. We know that this has been hard, particularly on our seniors and elders.”

This time, it’s the toll on the young that gets to her, as they struggle with challenges including social isolation at a time in their lives when interaction is so important.

“They have had the least influence and the most impact,” she says. “Reach out to the young people in your life.”

It’s been a challenging year for everyone, she says. “Now is the time again to remember to re-double our efforts, to remember to be kind to each other, because that is what makes a difference.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

The Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe authors’ advance from the publisher will be donated to charities with a focus on alleviating communities hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

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