Health

Chief medical officers are leading Canada through COVID-19 crisis — and many are women

The most visible chief medical officers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada have been women. They are helping Canadians understand the outbreak and are gaining respect, and even fan clubs, along the way.

Some have even inspired T-shirt portraits and online fan clubs

Chief medical officers leading Canada through this pandemic, top row from left: Dr. Barbara Yaffe in Ontario; Dr. Jennifer Russell in New Brunswick; Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam; Dr. Deena Hinshaw in Alberta; Dr. Patricia Daly in Vancouver; bottom, from left, Toronto's Dr. Eileen de Villa; Dr. Heather Morrison in Prince Edward Island; Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C.; Dr. Janice Fitzgerald in Newfoundland and Labrador; and Dr. Vera Etches in Ottawa. (Evan Mitsui, Michael Wilson/CBC, Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press, Art Raham, Ben Nelms, Peter Cowan/CBC)

There they are on Canadian televisions and smartphones day after day — chief medical officers tirelessly updating the country on the COVID-19 pandemic and what needs to be done to fight it.

Many of them are women who were unknown to most Canadians prior to the pandemic, but are becoming household names, earning respect and even fan clubs along the way.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, is leading the charge to not just "flatten the curve" but "plank it." She provides the daily media briefings, and she's the one featured in the government's public awareness campaign, not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Indeed, several provinces have women leading their responses: Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C., Dr. Deena Hinshaw in Alberta, Dr. Jennifer Russell in New Brunswick, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Heather Morrison in P.E.I., Dr. Kami Kandola in Northwest Territories and Dr. Barbara Yaffe in Ontario.

At a more local level, Ottawa has Dr. Vera Etches, Toronto has Dr. Eileen de Villa and Vancouver has Dr. Patricia Daly.

Women who work in medicine say these chief medical officers are points of pride and inspiration for their field.

"They all come across as fierce advocates for public health, but they are combining it with calm, expert, compassionate dispositions and that increases their ability to influence change," said Dr. Clover Hemans, president of the Federation of Medical Women in Canada.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have largely let Canada's chief medical officer, Theresa Tam, centre, speak directly to Canadians about the nature of the coronavirus outbreak. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Hemans, a family doctor who is currently working in a COVID-19 assessment clinic, said it's unfortunate that it's taken a public health crisis to show these women can shine. But she said their skills are on full display.

"They represent something that now other women can aspire to, and young girls for that matter. I love it."

Some people 'revere them' 

Dr. Sandra Landolt, president of a grassroots group called Canadian Women in Medicine, agreed these medical officers are role models and said she and her colleagues "feel proud" to share a profession with them. "They truly are inspirational."

She's also happy that Canadians are taking note of their roles and are showing their gratitude.

"People are starting to almost revere them. They feel comfortable, they feel they can trust these women," Landolt said. "There is something really geeky-cool about these women becoming icons."

Sarah Elder-Chamanara owns a Calgary-based clothing company called Madame Premier, which teamed up with artist Mandy Stobo, who created portraits of Tam, Hinshaw, Henry and de Villa that are featured on T-shirts. (Proceeds are going to food banks and charities.)

These portraits, from left, of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Bonnie Henry and Dr. Eileen de Villa by artist Mandy Stobo are featured on T-shirts. (Submitted by Sara Elders-Chamanara)

The first batch of 400 quickly sold out online. Then another 800 sold out.

Elder-Chamanara said that while Canadians seem to be rallying around the entire medical community, it's significant that so many women are guiding the country through this pandemic.

"I think we are so used to seeing men in these roles. There's never been a time like this, there's never been an experience like this and we've never had such incredible women at the forefront of something like this," she said.

'She is so calm'

Admiration through art is also on display in Vancouver, where murals of Tam and Henry were painted on a boarded-up store.

Others are expressing their appreciation for the doctors online, especially on Twitter. There's a "Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club" account with more than 8,000 followers, and someone started an anonymous account to pay homage to de Villa's signature fashion accessory — scarves.

B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has gained praise and immense respect for her measured yet humane response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Not all commentary online is favourable for the doctors. For example, some Canadians have questioned their decisions and found their messaging, especially on the use of face masks, confusing.

Others, however, praise them and their communication styles.

"She is so calm. She makes me feel safe when I listen to her," one person tweeted about Hinshaw. Another called her "an Alberta Treasure."

Henry a 'brilliant communicator'

Henry, who worked in Toronto during the SARS crisis and has also battled against Ebola, H1N1 and polio, has been lauded for her calmness, honesty and humanity.

Following an outbreak at a long-term care home in] B.C., tears welled in Henry's eyes during a media briefing when she talked about the risk of COVID-19 to seniors. People responded with appreciation that she showed compassion.

"Bonnie is a brilliant communicator," said Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.'s seniors advocate. Mackenzie emphasized that Henry's demeanour is low-key, but she's no pushover. "I admire her more and more all the time."

Mackenzie also noted how elected officials are often deferring to these medical experts, and letting them communicate directly with Canadians.

One of those politicians, Toronto Mayor John Tory, said in an interview that these top women doctors have helped Canadians understand the pandemic.

"They speak in a way that is obviously informed, is articulate, is straightforward," he said. "I think that is what people are looking for, people they can trust."

WATCH | Dr. Eileen de Villa speaks to the public about the COVID-19 outlook for Toronto

Dr. Eileen de Villa says cases of COVID-19 have shot up by 500 per cent in Toronto in recent weeks. 1:35

Tory described de Villa, his city's top doctor, as smart, fair and collegial, but added that "she is the original iron fist in the velvet glove."

"When it comes to speaking up for the public's interest, speaking up for public health … she does it, and she does it as firmly as anybody I've ever seen."

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitz_meagan

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