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Public health lead­ers fac­ing threats, ha­rass­ment

- Sharon Kirkey Health · Public Health · Society · Canada News · Body Modifications · Beauty · Fashion & Beauty · Nova Scotia · Twitter · United States of America · Stanford · Johns Hopkins University · American Medical Association · Prince Edward Island · Ottawa · Toronto · Body Art · Public Health Agency of Canada · Nuance Communications

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.”

 ?? An­drew Vaughan / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS ?? Dr. Robert Strang, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health in Nova Scotia, has made no se­cret of his dis­plea­sure with nasty com­ments he has re­ceived on Twit­ter and else­where.
An­drew Vaughan / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS Dr. Robert Strang, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health in Nova Scotia, has made no se­cret of his dis­plea­sure with nasty com­ments he has re­ceived on Twit­ter and else­where.
 ??  ?? Three high-achiev­ing doc­tors, three sto­ries of job stress. From left, B.C.’S Bon­nie Henry, Al­berta’s Deena Hin­shaw
and Canada’s chief public med­i­cal of­fi­cer Theresa Tam have been in the eye of the hur­ri­cane from day one.
Three high-achiev­ing doc­tors, three sto­ries of job stress. From left, B.C.’S Bon­nie Henry, Al­berta’s Deena Hin­shaw and Canada’s chief public med­i­cal of­fi­cer Theresa Tam have been in the eye of the hur­ri­cane from day one.

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