Nfld. & Labrador

Janice Fitzgerald and John Haggie are our newsmakers of the year

Two doctors — one a quick-witted politician, the other a family doctor who found herself in the spotlight while adjusting to a new job — became the face of the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador this year, writes Garrett Barry.

Two doctors literally became the face of the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador

At a March 17 briefing at Confederation Building, Health Minister John Haggie and Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, demonstrated a principle of physical distancing. (CBC)

The pandemic brought new rituals to all of us. 

For the lucky, these could be relatively mundane: sewing, baking, and yes, even candlestick-making. For the unlucky, they were much more draining and serious: video calls to loved ones in hospitals or long-term care homes, and quarantines in basements or cabins when returning from the oilsands north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

It would be unfair to say the costs of lockdown measures have been equally shared. But many people in Newfoundland and Labrador did find rituals in common, especially in the first few months of the pandemic. 

In the afternoons, usually around 2 p.m. NT, they'd turn to their computers and smartphones to hear the latest information from two doctors who became the faces of the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Those provincial government briefings became a true shared experience, when most other things that we could do together were cancelled. 

And there they were, two familiar faces on the screen: Health Minister John Haggie and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald appears at a COVID-19 information briefing in December. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

They told Newfoundlanders and Labradorians about COVID-19. They reported the daily numbers. They answered questions about the spread of the virus, its impacts, and restrictions designed to slow its march.

A province's daily anxieties — how many? where? — were answered, at least in part, in these sessions.

When we feared for our future, and when we hoped for our future, we turned to Haggie and Fitzgerald for advice.

Fitzgerald moved into public role during crisis

Hundreds of hours of screen time, beaming to homes across the province and the country, made stars out of the two doctors — even if at least one of them was noticeably reticent about being in the public eye.

Fitzgerald, by her own admission, preferred the anonymity of 2019, when she was the interim chief medical officer of health and quietly worked on public health regulations that very few people knew.

Hired in an interim role the preceding August, she held her first COVID-19 briefing on March 4. By May, Haggie quipped that she had eased any doubts about whether she could handle the role permanently. "Whatever job evaluation may have been necessary has just been passed with flying colours," Haggie said

Indeed, Fitzgerald became a household name as the briefings flew by, and was so well known by the fall that she and Haggie inspired Halloween costumes

She has indicated that she learned a few things about herself during the year. 

"I think everybody in the public health sector has learned a lot about themselves, and their resiliency," Fitzgerald said during a briefing earlier this month. 

Navigating a global pandemic is not a job that either Haggie or Fitzgerald signed up for. But as a politician and and a public official, they will ultimately hold responsibility for our pandemic shortcomings. After all, they played critical roles on whether businesses could open, how they could operate, where the newly approved vaccine goes first. They, notably, have defended a travel ban on incoming visitors that has so far survived a court challenge. 

WATCH | Dr. Janice Fitzgerald delivers the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in St. John's earlier this month: 

First COVID-19 vaccine given in N.L.

1 year ago
Duration 0:44
Public health nurse Ellen Foley-Vic receives the first inoculation in N.L. of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, at Memorial University's medical school in St. John's. 0:44

Sacrifices deemed necessary for greater good

But if Newfoundland and Labrador pulls through the pandemic with continued success, they will deserve their share of praise.

As the face of the provincial pandemic response, they have been able to convince Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to fundamentally change their way of life. Hundreds of thousands of people in this province have made sacrifices that were unthinkable merely months before. It was a collective action bigger than anything else in our shared history.

"We have tried to encourage kindness and respect," Fitzgerald said. "I think the public has responded to that, so I'm very grateful for the public for doing that." 

Fitzgerald conducted her first briefing on COVID-19 in early March. Haggie joined her soon after. The two have delivered scores of updates over the last nine months. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

People went without seeing their brothers and sisters, their neighbours and coworkers, their grandparents and their grandchildren.

Through it all, they tuned in, in huge numbers, to hear if those sacrifices were paying off. It was Haggie and Fitzgerald's job to tell the public that they needed to keep up their discipline — to "hold fast," as Fitzgerald often said as she concluded her opening remarks. 

In March and April families across the province organized and participated in teddy bear hunts to entertain their neighbours and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Seanne Justin Heath)

It's quite a thing for a government news conference to become appointment viewing. But even now, almost nine months later, the thrice-weekly updates reach tens of thousands of people, via the government of Newfoundland and Labrador's video feed.

'Our biggest tool … is education'

At peak, the briefings came every day, including weekends. Eventually, they were scaled back, as the province moved through relaxed stages of public health requirements. 

But there's something about the briefings that keeps the public — and public health — coming back.

"Our biggest tool in dealing with COVID is education," Haggie said in December. "In contrast with some other jurisdictions who've gone down to weekly or just media releases on paper, we have not seen some of the communications issues."

These briefings became distinctly ours: not many other governments gave advice on how to mummer this year. And even in announcing and justifying the travel ban to a domestic audience, Haggie tapped into the language of "come from aways" and a shared understanding of what makes people in N.L. who they are. 

Premier Andrew Furey, accompanied by Fitzgerald and Haggie, holds a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 16, the day that Fitzgerald delivered the first doses to health-care workers. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

It's no wonder, then, that among the seriousness of the updates there were moments of levity.  

Haggie made a conscious effort to cut through the noise of endless government updates with pithy one-liners, and that paid off: by April, those memorable warnings about the perils of licking shopping carts and online dating apps made their way into internet memes, songs and even cross-stitching.

But whether those sentences will become the lasting memories of this year as a whole is yet to be seen. The ingredients required for a negative turn are present: COVID-19 cases are rising across Canada, and a recent poll by Angus Reid suggests that, more than in any other province, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians plan to visit with family and friends this holiday season.

Perhaps the health minister has his messaging work cut out for him again.

They became the human face of the biggest collective action in generations. And they became, more than anyone else, responsible for its handling.

John Haggie and Dr. Janice Fitzgerald are the 2020 newsmakers of the year.


Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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