Originally posted on Forbes in April, 2020.
Victoria Foster (Contributor, Healthcare)
Victoria Foster is a cancer research scientist and a childhood cancer survivor.
Judging by numbers of deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, the country has been handling the coronavirus outbreak comparatively well. Less than 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19 have been reported in total, despite it being one of the first countries outside of China to report cases back in late January.
However, not everything is rosy in Canada and there are few positives to come from an outbreak in which hundreds of people have lost their lives. For example, around half of these deaths have been in long-term care homes, a national tragedy that shows few signs of easing anytime soon and there has also been justified criticism of testing capacity in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province.
But, one of these rare positives may just be that Canada seems to have some new heroes this spring. Perhaps surprisingly, they aren’t hockey players due to be playing in NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs now, or members of the reigning NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. They are Canada’s public health officials, the majority of whom are women.
Many publications have profiled the exceptional individuals helping guide countries through the pandemic. This recent New York Times article profiled several indisputably impressive scientists and physicians. The only considerable downside was that not a single woman was mentioned.
In Canada, it would be disingenuous to not feature women in such an article, because they make up most of the of federal and provincial public health leaders. A Forbes article from yesterday suggested that countries with women leaders seemed to have the best coronavirus responses. The Prime Minister is, of course, Justin Trudeau, but health officials at every level of government have undoubtedly played substantial roles in guiding the country through the pandemic, and will be hoping that Canada can continue to avoid the same fate as many harder-hit countries.
The most visible public official in Canada during this pandemic has been federal Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, a medical doctor and infectious diseases specialist with over 50 published scientific papers on topics ranging from influenza outbreaks to SARS. Tam has served on several World Health Organization committees and is exceptionally qualified, but like every public-facing person doing their job during this outbreak, has received criticism for what some perceive to be unclear messaging on the use (or not) of face masks. However, this mask-based criticism is not unique to Tam, or even Canada and as several others have written about previously, the guidance on face masks is rarely clear because the evidence supporting their use isn’t either.
Another health officer who has received plaudits for her handling of the outbreak is Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia, which includes the city of Vancouver. British Columbia recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the end of January and Henry has been consistently praised for her handling of the crisis. In early March, she appeared visibly emotional during a press briefing, leading to an outbreak of support from the public, with many saying that her relatable, human response to the crisis helped them navigate their own experiences. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chief Medical Officer for the province of Alberta, has also attracted much praise for her calm, reassuring and informative daily press briefings.
Toronto is Canada’s biggest city with nearly 3 million people, this rising to 6 million taking into account the sprawling suburbs that make up the Greater Toronto Area. Understandably, considering the densely-packed population, previous experience with SARS and considerable air traffic arriving at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, there were justifiable worries that an outbreak could sweep through the city.
Toronto reported its first confirmed COVID-19 cases in early January and since then has reported 2,362 cases, a markedly lower number than many other major North American cities. There have been justified criticisms of coronavirus testing capacity in the city, but hospitals are currently coping, although many are exercising caution and preparing for a surge which may or may not come.
In the front-line of the city’s response are Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the Director of Communicable Disease Control and Associate Medical Officer of Health for Toronto Public Health and Dr. Eileen de Villa, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto and leader of Toronto Public Health. Both are physicians, with Master’s degrees in public health or health promotion and are frequently seen at press briefings in Ontario alongside provincial medical officer Dr. David Williams.
In 2003, Toronto was badly hit by the SARS outbreak, resulting in the loss of 44 lives. In the months and years after this, scientists and doctors published several papers on the outbreak, trying to learn what they could, partly to prepare for similar situations in the future. Among the authors of many of these papers? Tam, Yaffe and Henry. They’ve been preparing for this outbreak for nearly two decades.
Essential workers such as those who work in transit, food and healthcare are receiving a lot of deserved recognition, it’s safe to say the general Canadian response to the new, widely recognizable faces of Canadian public health, has been especially remarkable.
Despite having not been household names before the outbreak, these public health representatives most certainly are now. Henry has her own Twitter fan club, with almost 10,000 followers and even a tribute video from two people in Vancouver, re-purposing the lyrics from the song “Dear Theodosia” from the incredibly-popular musical Hamilton, to “Dear Dr. Bonnie,” proclaiming they will “cancel all their fun vacations and stay at home” for her. Hinshaw has also inspired a tribute song from a local singer-songwriter, as well as a rush of orders for a periodic table dress that she has worn to briefings.
Four of the women, Tam, Hinshaw, de Villa and Henry have even been featured on T-shirts, sold for charity by Calgary-based business Madame Premier, who normally produces political clothing designed to spark conversations about the need for the increased participation of women and diversity in politics. They worked with Sophie Grace Designs, another Calgary-based clothing brand and local artist Mandy Stobo to produce the T-shirts.
“The response to the T-shirts was amazing,” said Sarah Elder-Chamanara, owner and co-founder of Madame Premier. “They sold out almost immediately - it was incredible to watch my phone send back-to-back alerts from Shopify for hours,” she added. The store sold 1,200 T-shirts in total, raising almost $30,000 for three food bank-based charities across Canada.
“They are experts in their field and they are also women. We aren’t used to seeing women represented like this which says a lot about the status of women and why we still have so much work to do. It’s not an understatement to say that they are working tirelessly to save our lives These are extraordinary times and they are extraordinary leaders,” said Elder-Chamanara.
Stobo first created the profile artwork of Hinshaw, the health officer in her province of Alberta.
“The situation was so big, the ripple effect, the newness of this scale, the information, fear...she was relaying all of this with such calm class, such controlled leadership, determination and bravery,” said Stobo. “I was just so thankful for her, a fellow mom who was in this storm and doing all of this with such strength,” she added.
“My portraits are always about celebrating good, so I thought I would start celebrating the positives in this situation, one special person at a time. I looked across Canada, and all of the women leaders are representing the data well, nurturing us with science and guiding us to do the best we can at such an unknown time. It made me feel confident in the information and it made me feel like we were all taking action together,” said Stobo.
Original post can be found here.