British Columbia

4 takeaways from Dr. Bonnie Henry's new book

The provincial health officer's new book, Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe, recounts her response in the first month of the pandemic in B.C. Here's what we learn.

B.C.'s provincial health officer recounts her response to the pandemic last March, including the personal toll

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's book, Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe, was released Tuesday by Penguin Random House Canada. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Hours before declaring a public health emergency on March 17, 2020, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry met with B.C.'s Health Minister Adrian Dix to prepare for a media briefing. 

The City of Vancouver had just announced an unprecedented shutdown of all restaurants and bars to stop crowds from spreading COVID-19. 

Henry recalls how she was struck by a sudden need to offer people hope. As she scribbled her notes, she jotted down the words "kindness," "calm," and "safe." 

"As the minister and I … made our way through the underground passage to the press room at the legislature, these three words were floating around in my head," she recalls in her book, Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe, released this week by Penguin Random House Canada. 

At the podium that day, Henry glanced down at her notes and capped her announcement with that mantra. 

It would later become a rallying cry for many in British Columbia during the pandemic. 

Henry's account of that moment are among some of the new insights in her book, which recounts her response to the pandemic in March 2020.

Co-authored with her sister Lynn Henry, a publishing director at Knopf Canada, the book has drawn scrutiny for the timing of its release — mid-way through the pandemic — and the appearance of gaining profit. (Both sisters have said they donated their advances to charities.)

Here's what we learn in the book's 216 pages. 

Emphasis on communication

Henry dedicated much thought in the early days to how she would communicate quickly changing information to the public. 

She devised the structure for B.C.'s briefing format first introduced in January 2020. Henry emphasized consistency and limiting the number of speakers, and asked that no one sit behind a table. 

"We would stand. And there would only be the two of us as the front-people, that's all."

Henry suggested she address health issues and directives, and Dix would handle policy and politics. 

Health Minister Adrian Dix and Henry hold one of their first briefings in Vancouver on Jan. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dix agreed to the briefings, but questioned who should speak on the public health and science. 

"I figure this is because we'd been a bit out of step over our overdose crisis communications, and we hadn't worked together long enough to build the trust between us that there is now," Henry said. 

Later in May, Henry texted her sister for help coming up with a metaphor that would convey the current stage of the pandemic. 

She wanted to avoid military imagery and the sisters agreed a word like fire had particular meaning in B.C. They settled on weathering a storm, an expression Henry would later use repeatedly in briefings. 

Personal toll 

Some of the book's revelations come from Henry's sister, Lynn, who flew to Victoria from Toronto on March 12 for a long-planned trip. 

Lynn had wondered whether to cancel the trip but had been reassured by sister. Henry would later admit she needed family during that time. 

Shortly before Lynn's arrival, Henry received a phone call at home from an anonymous man. The man recited her address and said he would appear at her door. (Henry would reluctantly ask for security, her sister said.) 

Lynn ultimately stayed at Henry's home for a month and observed the toll the all-consuming work took on her sister. 

"Imagine my forehead tattooed with a big V for virus," Lynn recalled Henry telling her. "That's my whole life now." 

Lynn Henry (right) spent a month with her sister, Bonnie Henry, during the first month of the pandemic. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press, Allen Lane, Derek O'Donnell)

Lynn described finding her sister lying on the living room floor in her work attire after a briefing. On one rare occasion, the two tried watching a movie together. 

"I saw maybe a quarter of that," Henry admitted once the movie ended.

Henry also described fitful sleeps. 

"I was having dreams where I was a maypole and people were dancing around me, wrapping me in the ribbons of all the many, many COVID-19 issues that needed solving." 

'Least restrictive means' 

Henry said her overriding principle following her experience with the 2003 SARS outbreak was employing the "least restrictive means," or doing just what was needed to prevent illness and death. 

"There's science, and there's emotion," Henry's sister recalled her saying. "The scientific facts are one thing; the social choices and consequences are another. We need to consider both." 

But in the early days, with little known about the virus, Henry understood the province would have to seemingly overreact with mass shutdowns or risk overwhelming the health-care system.

Henry said it was a "haunting realization." 

That reality materialized after she visited a restaurant on Monday, March 16 — her last dining-in experience in months — and realized the space still felt too bustling. She acknowledged to her sister on her walk home that she would have to shut down restaurants. 

After Henry ordered mass closures, she recounts how people wrote letters accusing her of ruining their lives and businesses.

"All of this seeped into my heart and soul and left me numb." 

She immediately began to think of how to keep the fewest possible restrictions in place for the shortest amount of time, a principle that would guide her later in the pandemic. 

'Our pandemic' 

From the start, Henry refused to employ practices adopted in some other provinces.

Provinces like Ontario had released modelling that estimated the number of deaths it would see from COVID-19. But Henry said she and her team unanimously rejected standard models that projected deaths based on statistics from other places. 

It was a decision, she said, that put her at odds with most others in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Henry felt B.C.'s ability to prevent transmission would dictate its number of deaths, citing the response as "our pandemic." 

"This was a position I would stay strong on. Every single death was a tragedy I felt deeply," she said. 

"We could not in any way claim success if our rate of death was merely lower than what other places had experienced." 

Lynn noted her sister "wouldn't be forced into following suit" just because projections had been made elsewhere, a belief that would hold true later in the pandemic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously reported for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.

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