B.C. public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry didn’t ask to be a celebrity.
The career doctor, who’s spent time on military ships and fighting SARS likely didn’t expect for everything from baby seals to cocktails to be named after her.
But in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, that was the case. Public health officials were heralded as heroes as they helped their province navigate the early days of the pandemic.
The New York Times called Henry “the top doctor who aced the coronavirus test.” Her “be kind, be calm, be safe” mantra has appeared on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts. She took over a celebrity Instagram account and posed for a photo op with the designer shoes named after her.
But as the pandemic nears its sixth month in Canada — half a year of near daily updates on case rates, outbreaks and infection prevention — COVID-19 fatigue is a very real thing. Canadians are tired of the pandemic. But are they also experiencing health-hero fatigue?
As provinces have rolled out controversial back-to-school plans, unconditional support and affection for public figures like Henry and Alberta’s Dr. Deena Hinshaw has started to fade and be replaced by questions and doubt. They’ve faced new scrutiny, with many Canadians on social media pivoting to calling them political pawns of their respective governments.
University of Guelph philosophy professor Maya Goldenberg specializes in trust and public health. She said early successes in the pandemic were due to high levels of trust in figures like Henry and Hinshaw. But recent controversies have tested that confidence.
“Both Hinshaw and Henry’s controversies that they both had around the back to school plans, is a demonstration that the public is not happy with the current events,” Goldenberg told HuffPost Canada.
“What they would like to do is correct this moment, so that we can go back to the way things were before where both of them were very impressive in how they were able to establish the public trust.”
Henry faced criticism this week for appearing in an advertisement promoting B.C.’s back-to-school plan, which did not feature a school setting in line with the province’s proposal. She was slammed online for appearing in the ad, with critics arguing the province was exploiting her image for a political agenda.
On Monday, Henry defended the ad and her role in it.
“I think we need to realize that that was not a commercial about what a classroom was going to look like,” she said during the province’s daily COVID-19 briefing.
“What that was was me as the public health officer talking with children and their parents about the things that they can expect in the new school year.”
But it’s not the first time public patience with Henry has started to wear thin. During her daily briefings, the health officer has faced repeated questions about why she refused to crack down on restrictions, even as a concerning second wave of cases in young people — or “mogul,” as Henry calls it — emerged as July turned to August.
What they would like to do is correct this moment, so that we can go back to the way things were before where both of them were very impressive in how they were able to establish the public trust.University of Guelph professor Maya Goldenberg
Goldenberg says Henry has earned her place as a recognizable figure due to the work she’s put in.
“I give her full credit for earning her stature, but once you’re up there, it means they’re going to have a lot more scrutiny,” she said.
She compared the public profile of Henry and Hinshaw to celebrities, noting that the goodwill that’s been built up towards them will help them bounce back from any blips.
“We’ve seen this kind of thing before with celebrities,” Goldenberg said. “Celebrities get a lot of love because they’re celebrities. They can certainly get a lot of criticism too but they can usually bounce back because they’re already capitalizing on a lot of positive regard towards them.”
After months of praise, a sold-out periodic table dress like the one she wore on T.V. and calls to name an LRT station after her, Hinshaw has also faced recent criticism. In particular, she’s been slammed for a last-minute change to the province’s school reopening plan regarding distancing in classrooms, no longer mandating that a two-metre distance be kept.
In the wake of the shift, Albertans took to Twitter doubting Hinshaw and calling her a mouthpiece of Jason Kenney’s government.
“Hinshaw, in the eyes of some, has gone from a medical Moses, leading us from this pandemic wilderness, to a compliant stooge for the ogre otherwise known as Premier Jason Kenney,” Postmedia columnist Chris Nelson wrote Thursday.
In particular, the order was criticized for its timing late on Saturday, with some critics arguing Hinshaw and the Kenney government were attempting to pass it unnoticed.
This week, Hinshaw has repeatedly defended the move, noting that it was in progress well before Saturday.
“I am very sorry for the anxiety and confusion that this order has sparked,” she said Monday. “This timing is not meant to hide information. Ironically, it was meant to be transparent. I understand the concerns, especially as we move forward quickly.”
Goldenberg said back-to-school plans hit a nerve with critics of both Henry and Hinshaw, because of the political nature of the plans.
“That creates tension for the role of a public health officer because they’re not supposed to be involved with these kinds of political agendas,” she said. “Of course, they work for the government, but they are positioned as scientists, especially in the context of a public health crisis, like this one.”
Goldenberg said both Henry and Hinshaw can recover by relying on the same open, direct communication that got them here, to explain themselves now.
Of course, they work for the government, but they are positioned as scientists, especially in the context of a public health crisis, like this one.Maya Goldenberg
“They are still celebrated in a lot of ways, they have a large platform for reaching the public. What they need to do is explain their actions,” she said.
On Thursday, when asked about shifting attitudes towards her image, Hinshaw acknowledged that people are feeling “frustrated” with the pandemic in general.
“Pandemic fatigue is a very real thing, COVID-19 has taken many things away from us,” she said. “I think it’s quite normal for people to feel tired, especially with back to school and heightened worries about what will happen.”
She reiterated that it is a stressful time, and it’s okay for people to take a step back.
WATCH: This is what classrooms look like in the pandemic. Story continues below.
“I sympathize, I too wish that it would just go away,” she said. “I think the best thing that we can do when we’re feeling at the edge of our rope, is figure out what helps us recharge.”
Hinshaw said the pandemic will continue until a vaccine or dependable treatment is found, and until then people need to lean on each other.
“Until that time happens, we continue to be each other’s best protection,” she said.
“The reality is not what any of us would choose if we had a choice, but what we can do is support each other through the fatigue, through the frustration, pick it up and carry on through another day.”