National Post (Latest Edition)
Public health leaders facing threats, harassment
It happened around the time Dr. Robert Strang was announcing a mandatory masking policy for most indoor public spaces in Nova Scotia. Masks for malls, spas, body art shops, places of worship, and trains, buses and ferry terminals, among other places. The list was long. “It’s about caring for each other,” Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health said.
As he spoke, “there was an individual who was communicating into my department that he was going to kind of be waiting for me after that announcement, to have a confrontation,” Strang recalled in a matter- of- fact manner. “He was looking to meet me ... clearly indicating he wanted to have a physical confrontation.”
The appropriate security alerts went out, including to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen Mcneil’s office, where Strang was at the time.
Nothing ever came of it, and Strang by no means wants to compare what he’s had to deal with to the death threats faced by B. C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry, who last week revealed she’s had security in her home after receiving abusive letters and calls to staff.
In Strang’s case, it was a vague threat, though a concrete one, and one example of the ugliness and unpleasant and personally directed comments he’s received, particularly on Twitter.
Strang has been celebrated as a hero, a voice of calm and clarity. But in times of calamity, of “catastrophes or disruptions of the social order, people often look for simple narratives and explanatory models to identify culprits,” Mcgill University anthropologist and cognitive scientist Dr. Samuel Veissière has said.
While surveys suggest Canadians generally have a high level of trust in public health officials, the human mind hates uncertainty, Veissière explained in an interview. And, as confirmed COVID-19 infections surge in parts of Canada, uncertainty is spreading.
In the U. S., public health officials are facing “unprecedented hostility” in the midst of the pandemic, Stanford and Johns Hopkins university experts wrote in August in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The harassment “is extraordinary in its scope and nature, use of social media, and danger to the ongoing pandemic response,” the authors wrote. The bullying — and worse — reflects “misunderstanding of the pandemic, biases in human risk perception, and a general decline in public civility.”
At least 27 public health officials in 13 states have resigned or been fired since the pandemic started. Public health officials have been the targets of “angry and armed protesters” outside their homes, harassing phone calls and threats of bodily harm.
Canada hasn’t seen the same ferocity or resistance to COVID- 19 restrictions as in the United States, but the country’s public health officials aren’t immune to harassment. Chief medical officers of health have become the very public face of COVID-19, but there’s also a deeply misogynistic streak here as well, said Strang, who first talked about the threat he received on a Halifax radio show last week.
“There’s a segment of the population that somehow feels it’s OK to treat women in leadership positions in a way that they wouldn’t think about a male leader.”
“There have been threats at times,” Dr. Heather Morrison, Prince Edward Island’s chief public health officer told CTV. “It makes me concerned for my family and my children and my staff.”
In Ottawa, medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches has received “some pretty ugly emails, but I can handle that, in terms of they haven’t been death threats,” Etches told a media briefing last week.
People are suffering — from economic loss, from social isolation — “so of course people are frustrated. It’s understandable,” Etches said. People are looking for someone to blame and somewhere to express that anger, and it’s important she hears from them, Etches said. “I don’t think things have reached a situation where I think that I’m in danger.”
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has also been the target of abusive messages. “While some people may feel justified in criticizing public health officials, there is no room for hate,” the Public
Health Agency of Canada said in a statement to the National Post. “While Dr. Tam has been the target of hateful messages, notably on social media, we do not comment on specific security matters.”
Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa has experienced “occasional” disparaging letters and comments, “but certainly nothing that I would characterize as significantly abusive or certainly anything where I felt personally threatened. And I would hope that wouldn’t happen,” de Villa said last week, adding that the response from Torontonians has, overwhelmingly, been positive.
But Mcgill’s Veissière, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, sees a “a potential pitfall of participatory democracy. When we involve people too much in public decision- making the possibility of discontent increases significantly,” he said.
“Because we have such democratic institutions, because our leaders have been actually very honest, even confessing when they did not know what was going on, more uncertainty but also more resentment has spread among the general public,” he said.
In the U. S., the pandemic has become so polarized and politicized it is dividing friends and families. Although nowhere near the same degree of dissent, Canada has experienced large
anti-mask protests, Veissière said.
In any crisis, people search for scapegoats and culprits, he said. “On the extreme end, you have the Qanon people who think that aliens and satanic pedophiles are trying to take over the world.
“For ordinary citizens looking for culprits, they’ll turn to elected officials and public health officials.”
A recent poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found one-quarter of respondents considered the threat of COVID-19 vastly overblown.
Veissière worries that over- reporting the vitriol and harassment directed at public health leaders risks creating more of it. All credible threats should be investigated and those whose harassment crosses legal lines should be prosecuted, the authors of the JAMA commentary wrote. “Harassment of public health officials must stop; instead, all efforts and attacks should be directed against the virus.”
There’s still a healthy scientific debate about the extent to which lockdowns help, or harm, Veissière said. But there ought to be more room for the nuanced greys in the middle, which most people don’t like, he said.
“Nuance is maximal uncertainty — it makes people anxious. They would much rather have simple stories with culprits. But we’re all in this together, and we’re doing our best.”
No matter where chief medical officers of health land on an issue, “not everybody is going to be happy,” Strang said. “There are always complex issues, with a lot of competing interests that we have to try to insert public health thinking into.” During a pandemic, with the daily COVID- 19 briefings, the decisions are that much more visible, the pressure that much greater, he said.
“There’s no doubt that this has been, and remains, a stressful time for medical officers,” said Strang. “But we step up and do what we need to do.”
What worries him is how stretched public health continues to be, from the front lines to senior decision makers. “Our ranks are very thin, and it’s a real risk that people already are tired and exhausted,” Strang said.
“If we have to really ramp up for a strong second wave, that may push us beyond the brink.”