Dr. Bonnie Henry has become B.C.’s Great Communicator
Nobody said that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be easy. As this week's Straight hit the streets, the death toll in B.C. had risen to 111 and the total number of positive tests had reached 2,112.
But the good news was that hospitalizations were down once again, according to the April 30 briefing, falling to 82. That was 15 percent lower than the 97 in hospital with COVID-19 earlier in the week
Despite the growing number of deaths that have created so much heartache for B.C. families, the provincial public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, remains a beloved figure across the province.
It’s evident in comments on Twitter, Facebook, and media websites, and in calls to B.C. talk shows. That's not to mention the T-shirts, mural, and John Fluevog shoes that have been created to honour her.
Henry’s mantra, “Be kind, be calm, and be safe,” is always delivered in her media briefings in a reassuring and maternal way, soothing British Columbians feeling anxious, upset, and disconnected by the pandemic.
She tugs at our communitarian heartstrings with her pleas to stay inside to protect the most vulnerable. And her command of the facts has astonished many reporters as she answers question after question after question without hesitation, rattling off scientific data with a precision that has made her a rock star in the world of public health.
There can be no doubt that Dr. Bonnie Henry is B.C.’s Great Communicator—to the point where she's now being deployed in government advertisements.
In retrospect, the B.C. NDP government’s decision to appoint her as the provincial public health officer in 2018 appears to be saving lives.
On April 25, CBC reporter Justin McElroy created a chart showing the number of COVID-19 deaths per million residents in every jurisdiction in Canada, the United States, and Europe with more than five million residents.
The lowest number of them all was in British Columbia.
Here, there were just 19 deaths per million—even lower than the Czech Republic, which has gained international praise for its efforts to curb the pandemic.
In contrast, New York recorded 1,085 deaths per million residents, Quebec was at 156, and Ontario had 58.
Unlike in Quebec and Ontario, B.C.’s premier has not stepped into the spotlight to become the main source of information on the pandemic.
Instead, this has fallen on the shoulders of Henry. At her daily briefings, she’s usually introduced by Health Minister Adrian Dix, who then gets out of the way and lets her speak uninterrupted.
On April 25, Dix took the day off and Henry held court with reporters on her own. Like on many other occasions, she brought forward some sad news: two more deaths lifted the provincial total to 100. And one of those who passed away was in an unnamed First Nations community, which was later revealed to be Alert Bay.
“Our elders, in particular in our First Nations communities, are culture and history keepers,” Henry said in a sad voice. “When they become ill and when they die, we all lose. And I want you to know that we feel that collective loss today. My thoughts are with her family and her entire community as I recognize the tragic impact this has on all of us.
“It’s particularly a challenging time to not be able to come together physically in the normal way that we would to respect the customs that we have in communities at this time,” she continued. “And my condolences and my heart goes out to this community and to the family.”
It had the classic Henry touch, sensitively respecting the victims while exhorting British Columbians to feel their pain. But she wasn’t finished there.
“As we continue to move forward in our COVID-19 response, it’s important that we don’t leave anyone behind, particularly people who I know are dealing with many different crises, including people who use drugs, people who are underhoused and homeless,” she added. “Everyone in B.C. deserves to feel safe, protected, and supported through these crises. Safe physical distancing and self-isolation, if you’re ill, can be really difficult when your housing is precarious. And this is further compounded for people who may also be living with mental health and substance use or addiction issues.
“We have not forgotten that we have two public-health crises, two public-health emergencies that we’re dealing with in this province. The first of those has been going on for some time, and that is our overdose crisis. And now, compounding that, is the COVID-19 outbreak. For people who are dealing with both of these challenges, daily life can be very much a struggle.”
Politicians can say these words, but they’ll never have quite the emotional impact of a trusted public-health official.
This is the case even as B.C. has been abominably slow in providing adequate washrooms and hand-washing stations for the homeless living outside of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
The only real criticisms directed at Henry have come in connection with early comments not to wear masks in public and her refusal to order the shutdown of the so-called "man camps" at government-supported construction projects.
And Henry, the Great Communicator, rarely receives pushback from the media, even when B.C.’s level of testing didn’t come close to some other jurisdictions.
Dr. Joseph Finkler, a St. Paul’s Hospital emergency-room physician who survived COVID-19, credits Henry for repeating sound medical advice in easy-to-understand language.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Finkler pointed out that B.C.’s success is also integrally linked to a bunch of experts—in fields ranging from epidemiology to mathematics—who have done impressive modelling work underscoring what Henry says.
“When Bonnie Henry speaks, her script is made by a whole bunch of background researchers,” Finkler said. “It’s like Hollywood. She’s not quite the actor, but a little bit…She’s done a great job.”
Neither Henry nor Dix were made available to the Straight for interviews by deadline.
Perhaps this can be seen as another reflection of how carefully the government's message is being calibrated during the pandemic.
Reporters only get one question at the daily briefings, not a whole bunch.
The Great Communicator nickname was originally bestowed on former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, whose mastery of common language helped him win two landslide victories in the 1980s.
Reagan was ably assisted by a sophisticated group of communications advisers, most notably Michael Deaver. He was a big believer in repetition.
"The business of saying the same thing over and over and over again—which to a lot of Washington insiders and pundits is boring—works," Deaver once said.
It's clear that Henry has also embraced this approach with her constant calls for the public to wash their hands, stay home, and protect the less fortunate.
"Be kind, be calm, and be safe" may be starting to sound like a bumper-sticker slogan to the reporters attending the daily briefings.
But it's hard to argue with the results.