Canada’s top doctors reveal flip side to public praise: ‘I’ve had death threats’

By | September 24, 2020

OTTAWA — The top health officials co-ordinating Canada’s COVID-19 response say the majority of public reaction to their work has been positive — but they’ve also received some abusive feedback that ranges from “well-thought-out insults” to “death threats.”

“I’ve got a lot of positive responses, but there are many people who don’t like what I do, or don’t like the way I say it or don’t like my shoes and feel quite able to send me nasty notes, to leave phone calls, to harass my office staff,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s top doctor, speaking Tuesday.

“I’ve had to have security in my house, I’ve had death threats,” she added.

Her comment made headlines after she revealed the death threats she’d been facing — and it prompted reporters to quiz other health officials about how they’ve been treated by the public.

While the other public health officers did not report death threats, they said they had been on the receiving end of some abuse.

Dr. Heather Morrison, who serves as the top doctor in P.E.I., said she’s received a small amount of feedback that’s been frightening.

“Overwhelmingly, it’s been so wonderful,” Morrison told CTV News in an interview.

However, she conceded that “there have been threats, at times.”

“It makes me concerned for my family, and my children, and my staff,” Morrison said.

While some doctors, such as Henry and Morrison, reported outright threats, others said that while they hadn’t faced any threats, there had been a heaping of criticism levelled towards them.

“Dr. Hinshaw has received a wide range of correspondence from Albertans,” said a spokesperson for Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

“While this includes strong personal and professional criticisms, she has not received death threats or hate mail to date.”

Newfoundland and Labrador’s top doctor, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said in her Wednesday press conference that it’s “unfortunate” people feel public servants “deserve to be the target of such harassment.”

“In the Public Health Division we’ve had our share of emails that aren’t necessarily in agreement with some of the things that we have done, but you know, we have to accept that as part of the job I guess,” she added.

Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said in her own Wednesday press conference that she has also been on the receiving end of insults — but no threats.

“I haven’t had any threats. I’ve had some very-well-thought-out insults sent my way, but for the most part, no, no threats,” she said.

RESEARCH POINTS TO WOMEN FACING MORE CRITICISM ONLINE

At least one study indicates that the numbers reflect what these doctors are describing — and may point to a gender divide in the negative feedback they face.

Erin Kelly is the CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc., which uses Artificial Intelligence for human behaviour research. She studied the feedback these public health officer face using a randomized, controlled sample of 270,000 Canadians taken from Twitter.

Kelly said the randomized, controlled sample she studied was taken from Twitter between October 1, 2019 to September 22, 2020. She said her results had a margin of error of +/- 1 per cent, with a 95-per-cent confidence interval 19 times out of 20.

She said they found, overall, discussion about Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Bonnie Henry was “well in excess of 80 per cent positive, so overall Canadians feel they’re doing a good job.”

“However, we have seen for some of them like Bonnie Henry, feelings about her have been on the decline since about April, and especially since July, that contestations questioning her competence have been increasing,” Kelly said.

She added that roughly a quarter of the discussions about Tam were what she would “classify as racist.”

“But the bigger picture that we see is a gender bias in how public health officials are being perceived,” Kelley said.

She explained that where there are negative comments directed at public health officials, “it comes overwhelmingly from men.”

She said that when this was compared to the comments Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams faces, “the comments from men were overwhelmingly positive.”

“So it’s not as though they’re always negative about public health officials generally, it seems to be splitting along gender lines,” Kelly said.

When asked about this gender difference, Alberta’s top doctor said it would be “difficult” to compare what she’s experienced with the feelings among her colleagues.

“It’s not something I’ve discussed with my male colleagues across the country so that might be something of interest to find out if they’re experiencing some similar frustrations,” Hinshaw said.

“I think it is quite understandable that people do feel angry, it’s just really important that, if people are feeling angry, that they frame their concerns in a respectful way…whether people in leadership are women or men.”

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