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In good hands

For many Canadians, calm during COVID-19 was aided by confidence in the provincial public health leaders, four of whom are Dal alumni. Dean of the Faculty of Health Dr. Brenda Merritt offers her thoughts on what we can learn from their examples.

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately, and what is needed to guide others effectively during a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19, when lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Leadership is about establishing trust, genuinely listening to the needs of your community and responding in a transparent and proactive way. This is especially tough in a situation that’s constantly changing. Acknowledging that you don’t know all the answers is OK. Acknowledging that it’s hard is OK. As leaders, we are also human.

Watching our public health leaders over the past months—and especially our Dal alumni Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C., Dr. Jennifer Russell in N.B., Dr. Heather Morrison in P.E.I. and Dr. Janice Fitzgerald in Newfoundland and Labrador—we see that transparency, that trust. Sure, we may have loved Dr. Henry’s shoes—but we valued her honesty and empathy more. And while T-shirts portrayed Dr. Morrison as a superhero, it was her grounded, calm clarity that gained Islanders’ trust.

They’ve taught us that it’s critical to clearly and openly communicate. If you don’t know something, collaborate with others to find a solution or answer. It is unrealistic to set an expectation with yourself and others that you know all of the answers during a global crisis that not one of us have ever encountered. This approach can serve to build trust while pulling together the collective wisdom to move forward together.

What concerns me now is that people are very tired from worry, decision fatigue and balancing family life with the changes in their work. Dr. Fitzgerald reassured us that it’s normal to be worried. Dr. Russell reminded us that we need to connect with our loved ones, eat properly, exercise and take deep breaths.

We need to take time to rest and take care of ourselves and each other. These leaders—great leaders all—know we have to ensure that mental as well as physical health is protected as we slowly return to our ‘new normal.’

During the COVID-19 pandemic public health responses in four of Canada’s 10 provinces have been led by Dal alumni whose guidance has helped limit the spread of the virus and save lives. Here’s a sampling of how they’ve led and what they’ve learned through the experience.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald (PGM’96), Newfoundland and Labrador

About A former regional medical officer, Dr. Fitzgerald recently had “interim” dropped from her title as chief medical officer of health and, despite keeping a low profile, the postgraduate medicine alum has won raves for her steady leadership.

On seeing results “This is the paradox of public health,” said Dr. Fitzgerald during her May 19 press briefing. “When we are doing things right, it seems as though nothing is happening, and people are getting frustrated wondering why we must still adhere to the measures in place, when in actual fact the reason we are not seeing any new cases is because of these very measures. If they weren’t in place, COVID-19 would look very different in our province.”

Dr. Jennifer Russell (BA’92, PGM’01), New Brunswick

About An alumnus of both Dal’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Family Medicine residency program, she’s a former medical officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health since 2018.

Why credibility matters “Throughout any pandemic we are often learning new and emerging information in real time. With ever-changing information and emerging data, this can be difficult to communicate to the public and ensure they have the information they need… that is why it is so important to ensure any and all information you are gathering on the situation is from reliable and creditable sources.”

On teamwork “A leader is not a leader without their team. This is something I have always believed to be true but has certainly been more apparent throughout these past few months. The amount of collaboration, support, long hours and dedication that I have seen not only in public health but across all sectors has been incredible.”

Dr. Heather Morrison (MD’99), Prince Edward Island

About P.E.I.’s chief health officer since 2007, Dr. Morrison is a Dalhousie MD graduate and former Rhodes Scholar who continues to practise emergency medicine in Charlottetown.

On communication “The ongoing challenge is how we communicate in a calm, authentic way about something that’s new to everyone, that has evolving evidence and where there’s so much underlying fear and anxiety… and will continue to be one as we go through a potential second wave right through to a vaccine.”

On care and compassion “I finish a lot of my press conferences by saying, ‘Be safe and look after each other—let us be patient and let us be kind.’ When I’m saying them to the public as we go through this journey together, I’m saying them to myself as well… It’s about trying to be patient, be safe and be kind to yourself as well as to others.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry (MD’90), British Columbia

About Originally from Charlottetown, P.E.I. she’s a Dalhousie Medical School grad who served as operational lead for the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto and has been B.C.’s provincial health officer since 2018.

Preparing the public “Getting everyone in the health sector and then across government and all communities in B.C. to understand what might happen and what we needed to do to prepare and then to respond was the next biggest challenge. But I believe that if we give people the information about what they need to do, why we need them to do it and the means to do it, then most people will do just that.”

The importance of kindness “I have said, ‘We are all in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat’—having compassion and supporting each other is what will get us through. My mantra to be kind, be calm and be safe reflects that. We need to be kind to each other and to ourselves; take a deep breath and be calm as we do not always know the full story of why someone else is doing what they are doing; and be safe by doing the things we know work to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”