Dr. Henry or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plague

I wrote this essay a year ago. The so-called Freedom Convoy has escalated the anti-vax, anti-mandate movement. It is about time this small essay saw the light.

On Thursday, January 28th, 2021, the day a few Canadians (maybe more than a few) bemoaned the one-year anniversary of the Coronavirus in Canada, after being voluntarily stuck in the house since the previous Saturday (except for one quick trip to the mailbox and only then to fulfill my obligations as a rural citizen to empty the darn thing with reasonable dispatch and of course, going to the woodshed to replenish my wood supply) I stepped out into the wet winter air.

I strolled up my steep soggy asphalt driveway to where I had parked my car days earlier. When snow is threatening, and being a cautious person, I leave it at the top of the said driveway.

I have been disappointed this time. My winter snow system proved a giant waste of time. Though we had a light dusting of the wretched stuff, it quickly rain-washed away.

Putting these first-world snags aside, I cranked up Old Bessie and drove to the Denman Island General Store to pick up a few essentials. Yogurt, cilantro, broccoli, and cauliflower to name most of the things I was feeling in need of.

Oh, and a few extra mushrooms.

Earlier that day I had lounged in bed listening to the CBC’s Early Edition explore with a number of guests their respective takes on this auspicious day, how COVID-19 had affected them the past year, were they experiencing COVID Fatigue, how they were coping.

The highlight was an interview with Dr. Bonnie Henry conducted by the hospitable host, Stephen Quinn. I like Quinn. He and his co-workers bring a certain joie de vivre to people like me, older people who may have the time (or no other choice but) to lounge around in bed and think about breakfast alternatives.

So, yes, on that providential day, 365 days along the pandemic precipice, my principal concern was, as it has always been, before, during, and, hopefully, long after the plague, my first meal of the day.

But I delayed breakfast, remained in bed an extra fifteen minutes, and listened to Dr. Henry. I had taken note of her prognostications daily throughout this ordeal. I had scrutinized her patiently promote the promise of salvation from this virus if we behaved, if we were calm and kind. I had relished her ensemble of dresses and jewelry, her occasionally mussed-up hair, her comforting emotional range.

She was the epitome of kindness and calm. I have felt safe in her publicly healthy arms.

Even in the face of those who have slighted her.

A number of them live close to me.

I live on a small island on the West Coast of Canada. Denman Island. It has been my home for twenty years. Here, I have matured from an antsy early retiree into a slowly crumbling but contented old goat. From the moment I set permanent foot on Denman, I have volunteered. For the past ten years, I have served on the Board of Directors of the Hornby & Denman Community Health Care Society, the last seven years as the chair. This organization, which provides home care and a range of related services including youth and family support, has been integral to the well-being of both communities for forty years. We have done our best to adapt to the demands of the pandemic. When I say we, I mostly mean our dedicated staff. They are largely women, primarily older workers who serve their often not that much older clients with a marvelous level of care and concern. Unsung heroes before the pandemic, they remain unsung. Dedicated, worthy of a much higher level of praise, financial compensation, and support, they are not that dissimilar to the thousands of health care workers and other essential workers who work in long-term care homes, grocery stores, the range of workplaces that this epidemic has significantly altered.

We have a substantial elderly population in our community of 1000 permanent souls. Hornby Island, our neighbour and full (and senior) partner in Home Care delivery have a similar number of aging permanent residents.

Both Islands have an extreme range of folks, some who are flush with economic security, many who are adequately economically fortified, others who are simply not. This is no different than you might find in most western communities or the rest of the world.

While the disparities are evident here, they are not always acknowledged. At the same time, while the sense of community cohesion can seem strong, is strong on many accounts, this alleged cohesion is rarely tested.

For much of the time we, on our two Islands, did not have any acknowledged cases of the virus. While that may have changed (rumours suggest it has), we have mostly felt, if not immune, then fortunate to be better off than many places in the rest of the planet.

At the same time, we have also experienced, and continue to experience, some among us who decry the thoughtful and, yes, occasionally fluctuating messages of Public Health, the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Provincial and Federal Governments, and the World Health Organization.

One of the most visible and vociferous voices of Covid-19 descent has been my former physician. I carry a sorrow within me, silently for the most part, for our mutual betrayal. Though doctors are not priests, for most of my life I have blindly worshipped at the medicinal alter of the general practitioner. I have afforded them all, and there have only been a few, an almost unquestioning fealty, a belief that they were all united in the provision of scientifically-based healing.

Alas, aside from my former G.P.’s minor contributions to the dissembling of epidemiological facts locally, and his Facebook, etc. acolytes who have contributed to an increasingly angry and misanthropic narrative both on social media and our very local press, he has become a very public opponent of Public Health initiatives to mitigate this epidemic.

In October, he sent a communique to Dr. Henry. It said in part, “The epidemiological evidence clearly shows that the “pandemic” is over, and no second wave will follow. The evidence has been available for at least 4-5 months and is irrefutable.”  The letter made the rounds. A month later, for example, it was published in the Oliver Daily News. It received a range of responses. A few days later, my former G.P offered his thanks to the paper for reprinting the letter. Within that missive, he had this to say: “Public health has been lying to British Columbians and rolling out policies that are killing people.”

Prior to this essay, I have resisted comment on his views. Discussion and dialogue are of course a hallmark, the hallmark, of a civilized democracy. All opinions deserve a hearing, even the most reprehensible. My support of free speech is not always a comfortable sinecure. I do have, however, the luxury of not being a policymaker.

Nevertheless, within the framework of this plague, for that is what it is, I believe, I have, like everyone else in the world, had to take a side. As I compose this document in late January/early February 2021, his statements clearly show that his predictive skills are, to be kind, deficient. More than that, he and his supporters undermine our system of Public Health.

He is/was/may still be an amiable fellow and I miss his presence on my side of the epidemic equation. Just prior to the epidemic, the provider of health services at our community-built clinic changed. This transition had already aggravated some Islanders. The virus only enhanced that sense of extraordinary transformation. While I doubt that it is playing a part in his response to the Coronavirus, I am thankful that he is not still the provider of my medical service. That would be ideologically and ethically untenable both for me and, I suppose, for him.

That Sunday morning as I listened to Dr. Henry discuss how things had changed over the past years, I began to wonder, idly I confess, what she might be saying next year on January 28th, 2022.

Yes. I am there. Lost in the Future. The nuclear virus has exploded, and we might never be the same. I am willing to grasp hold of that notion and plan accordingly.

And so, as I have always done, I prepare for the worst. I appreciate the worst. Anything less is a gift. In the recent American Presidential election, I prepared for the worst. The worst, or its apprentice worst, was already in the White House. My relief at his expulsion from office was cathartic.

And while anything or anyone but the worst is not designed to be perfect, it is/they are better than…yes, better than the worst. I realize that many others are struggling during the plague. For some the circumstances of the plague are the gravest life has thrown at them. Totally unexpected. They were not prepared. There was no ‘earthquake kit’ available. Not even a premonition that such a thing, a ‘plague kit,’ might be necessary.

Of course, some have predicted a plague. Something like the plague. Plagues! For a couple of decades, I have owned a copy of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague. This seminal work leaves little to the imagination. Garrett offers a slew of quotes I could use to munch home the point but this one tells the tale I like to tell. “We’ll never escape the limits of the ecosystem. We are caught in the food chain, whether we like it or not, eating and being eaten.”

I find it almost biblical.

Dr. Henry, ever cautious, ever optimistic, said that Sunday morning, “We are still in the middle of this and still moving forward…” When asked if she had any regrets, could have done something different, she acknowledged, that she could have instituted “more stricter restrictions in October…”

It is reasonable to second guess yourself. Especially when your life has been threatened and you have had to have elevated levels of security.

Yes, Dr. Henry has had her life threatened. And she is not alone. Recently a horde of anti-maskers swarmed outside the home of Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab.

The world has changed. Yet, in many ways, not so much. Lives have been lost. People are struggling. Violently inclined passions have ignited. Politicians have both surprised us with their wisdom and disappointed us with their failures.

Perhaps I have misnamed the title of this reflection. Whilst my affection for it/possible eventual infection by it, is meant to be a mildly entertainingly, quasi-tantalizing commentary, it probably is not a real love letter.

However, I have been stimulated as a writer by how it has consumed the earth, how we (the larger WE, humanity) have dealt with its existence.

As a Canadian baby boomer, I have led a charmed life. As a thoughtful Canadian, I have sometimes wondered what it might take to balance the equity register around the world. The wisest of us have clearly articulated that we are all in this together. Early on, in late March of 2020, Tatiana Valovaya (Director-General of UN Geneva) said of COVID-19 that it is our “common enemy.” Many others have since followed suit.

In little more than a year, with a modicum of masked behaviour, social distancing, sanitizer, exercise, and my share of healthy breakfasts, I will reach my three-quarter century mark. I have had a good run.

If I may, I would like to end this meditation with a January 23, 2020, quote from China’s CDC Director George Gao: “The Virus is crazy. We don’t want to be crazy.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry

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