Two ways to read the story
- Quick Read
- Deep Read ( 4 Min. )
There are not many provincial health officers who have fan clubs. But Dr. Bonnie Henry does.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, British Columbia’s soft-spoken health expert has become beloved in households across Canada. Each day as she addresses the province at 3 p.m. local with the latest data and policy plan – later beamed across the nation in evening broadcasts – she’s become a holder of hands for the Canadian public. With her constant presence and soothing voice, she has mastered a balance between informing a public and keeping it calm.
At a time when it seems politicians have to scream louder and assert their stance to be heard, Dr. Henry – or Dr. Bonnie as people call her – shows that confronting people’s anxieties with honest information is what the public wants.
“From the very beginning, she’s given these daily briefings with very competent science,” says Sally Thorne, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia. “One of the real challenges is to help a population of anxious people, when the messages are changing and when there may be naysayers. And she has been just absolutely the epitome of calm and compassion.”
Before this month, her name was not widely recognized, let alone her face. But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s soft-spoken provincial health officer, has become beloved in households across the country.
Each day as she addresses the province at 3 p.m. local with the latest data and policy plan – later beamed across the nation in evening broadcasts – she’s become a holder of hands for the Canadian public. With her constant presence and soothing voice, she has mastered a balance between informing a public and keeping it calm, even as she delivers mounting figures and asks for unprecedented community sacrifice.
When she had to announce this month the first death in the province, she nearly teared up, not the first time she’s shown emotion. “What can I say, it’s a very difficult time and I’m feeling for the families and the people dealing with this right now,” she said at one presser, later adding she hoped the media wouldn’t overplay it, so as not to worry her elderly parents. She has made jokes. “Wash your hands like you’ve been chopping jalapenos and you need to change your contacts.”
She has acknowledged people’s fears about the disruption to community life. She told them there’s never been a better time to enjoy the natural beauty around them. “This is our time to be kind, to be calm, and to be safe,” she said.
In response, a “Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club” has sprung up on Twitter. There, politicians, business leaders, and plenty of locals heap praise on her style and substance. “Thank you Dr. Bonnie Henry for being a voice of reason, community heart, and communicator of facts,” is one of hundreds of thank you notes. Two women in Vancouver even recorded a tribute to her, adapting the song “Dear Theodosia” from the musical “Hamilton.”
At a time when it seems politicians have to scream louder and assert their stance to be heard, Dr. Henry – or Dr. Bonnie as people call her – shows that confronting people’s anxieties with honest information, as it changes and even reverses, is what the public wants.
“Of all the people shouting, I don’t want to listen to them because they actually inflame the situation. And they make a whole chunk of the population more anxious and less convinced they know what they’re doing,” says Gillian McCormick, a Vancouver physiotherapist who co-hosts a podcast called “Small Conversations for a Better World.” “Meanwhile maybe it’s that quiet woman in the back of the room that’s observed, had a good think, calculated, and went OK.”
Ms. McCormick knew nothing about her provincial health officer before the coronavirus threatened the globe. She certainly wouldn’t have recognized Dr. Henry, with her blond bob and no-nonsense business suits, in a crowd. But with a practice less than a half kilometer from the Lynn Valley Care Centre, the epicenter of the outbreak in British Columbia where six have died, Ms. McCormick has come to depend on Dr. Henry’s steady presence. “As soon as she starts talking, you’re like, ‘Oooh.’ You just feel a sense of calm.”
That, combined with her battle-tested credentials, helps health professionals get their jobs done, says Sally Thorne, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Henry has been the provincial health officer for just over two years. She was a leader of the response to the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, and has worked to eradicate polio in Pakistan and control Ebola in Uganda. Perhaps most fittingly, she authored the book “Soap and Water and Common Sense.”
“From the very beginning, she’s given these daily briefings with very competent science,” Dr. Thorne says. “One of the real challenges is to help a population of anxious people, when the messages are changing and when there may be naysayers. And she has been just absolutely the epitome of calm and compassion.”
For the nursing community in British Columbia on the front lines, says Dr. Thorne, she’s helped them to reassure their own patients. “It’s very helpful to have that grounded place, to keep referring people back to substantiate our message to ‘keep calm, we’ve got this, we’re nurses’ message. Yes it’s difficult, but we will get through it.”
She’s been compared to the former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, or New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the mosque attack last year. But it may be more suitable to compare her to someone like Ian McDonald, who delivered Ministry of Defense press briefings and became the “unlikely television star of the Falklands War of 1982,” as The Telegraph wrote in his 2019 obituary, with his “matter-of-fact bulletins on the latest developments” that contrasted with “overheated rhetoric” of the time.
Indeed, Jody Vance, a broadcaster in Vancouver, says Dr. Henry has humanized the conflict instead of politicizing it – which inspired Ms. Vance to pen an open letter to her in the independent online publication The Orca.
“Dear Dr. Henry, Can I call you Dr. Bonnie? In our house that’s what we call you. My boy says it’s because he knows you,” she begins.
Whether for her 12-year-old son or the policymakers at the highest levels, it’s the precision and simplicity of her language that has made her so trustworthy.
“She’s very mindful to not use words that in a soundbite could scare people,” says Ms. Vance. “She’s one of those people who makes themselves available to the average Joe and Jane Public to answer the question they’ve been asked a thousand times as if they’ve heard it for the very first time,” she says. “I’ve never met her, but I feel like she’s a family member.”
Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.