1303 Bonnie Henry: writer

Ron Verzuh reviews two books:

Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks that Shaped a Pandemic
by Bonnie Henry and Lynn Henry

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Allen Lane), 2021
$26.95 / 9780735241855

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Soap and Water and Common Sense: The Definitive Guide to Viruses, Bacteria, Parasites, and Disease
by Bonnie Henry

Toronto: House of Anansi, 2009, re-released 2020
$18.95 / 9781487008673

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Be Angry, Be Frustrated, But Be Vaccinated: BC’s pandemic expert describes the deadly coming of Covid-19

Covid has made life complicated, scary, confusing and divisive. Dr. Bonnie Henry had a front-row seat as the virus took hold in B.C. She knew what was coming from past experience with the SARS, EBOLA and H1N1 pandemics of years early. Now she was in the driver’s seat as B.C.’s health officer as we braced for a relentless, silent and invisible enemy. Many of us are grateful that she’s behind the wheel.

I was in the United States when Covid started making its way across the world, eventually killing more than five million people and counting. My Dr. Bonnie was Dr. Anthony Fauci. He had taken a back seat to watch Donald Trump steer the nation into mayhem and more than 600,000 dead.

Like Bonnie, Fauci was the person making the rules as director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Early mistakes were made, particularly regarding vaccine production and he took some of the blame. So it is with Bonnie, like Fauci, she has borne the brunt of public anger over health decisions that would affect usual freedoms. She also shared his frustration with public stubbornness about getting the jab.

I had just finished reading Be Kind when a news item scurried across my screen. The union representing 12,000 Toronto Transit Commission workers was refusing to endorse the vaccine mandate with its members. It seems incongruous that a union mandated to protect its members would advocate against the only real protection against the virus that medical science has devised.

Adrian Dix, BC’s Minister of Health, and public health officer Bonnie Henry, 2020. Photo courtesy BC government via Vancouver Is Awesome

As a retired trade union staff member, I found it exasperating that the union leaders had not used their competence in health and safety, a key role of all unions, to negotiate a sensible approach to a world crisis. It was a myopic and self-serving reaction to a government mandate.

It was only one of too many examples of people rejecting advice from experts like Henry and Fauci and even accusing them of profiteering from vaccine production and sales. Fauci got death threats, as is often the norm in the U.S. Henry faced similar angry responses as she devoted long days and nights to making sure British Columbians could be as safe as possible.

Be Kind does not dwell on the vaccine refuseniks. She does not use her book to scold or criticize. Instead, she shows a deep understanding of public fears as she walks us through her life as the pandemic hit North America in spring 2020. Her book is a readable journal of BC’s plague year and we see her decision-making process step-by-step, infection-by-infection, Covid death by Covid death.

Reflecting on the horrific damage the virus has caused and is causing, and on her own rulings in an effort to confront it, Henry explained her view that “by recognizing our need for connection, compassion, and community, acknowledging that we’re in this together, and cultivating a sense of common purpose we could build a resistance that would support us all through this storm.” Here’s hoping that more vaccine deniers begin to embrace that same spirit.

Lynn Henry and Bonnie Henry at the BC Legislature, 2020. Photo by Jean-Marc Prevost

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Her earlier book, Soap and Water, is a creative and accessible textbook on the many health threats facing the public and she traces the history of some of those threats to illustrate mistakes but also wrong-headed public attitudes to the development of life-saving antidotes. Milk Madness, for example, afflicted people until Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization, but “many have clearly forgotten or are willfully blind to the lessons of the past.”

My personal favourite is Montezuma’s Revenge, the gastro-intestinal disorder, which can abruptly end a foreign holiday. But do I pay attention to the doctor’s advice to avoid tap water, peel raw fruit and avoid salads? And yet, as Henry advises these are the best ways to stay healthy. The book includes myths about bugs and rules for avoiding disease just as she does in Be Kind.

Bonnie’s bug book should take its place on the bookshelf with the government-issued health care guide found in most B.C. homes. Her journal book will appeal to readers who have come to view Henry with almost saintly reverence. Given the frantic pace of her life in those early days of Covid, it is a wonder that she managed to write a book at all. Enter older sister Lynn, publishing director at Knopf Canada.

Dr. Bonnie Henry. Photo courtesy House of Anansi

Lynn contributes to both books, but her main job was to observe her sister perform her duties in the eye of the worst pandemic in more than 100 years. Lynn clearly admires “Dr. Bonnie,” and she shares her impressions of how British Columbians were awed by her.

Bonnie’s sections of Be Kind were unvarnished, factually driven accounts of long days of consulting with other medial experts, working closely with Adrian Dix, BC’s health minister, and making gut-wrenching health care decisions. Her sister’s accounts were filled with flowery descriptions of sunsets and Pacific coast scenes as she offered a fly-on-the wall portrayal of a humble health care hero in action. I could understand Lynn’s admiration for her younger sister, but at times it was distracting.

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A note on Canada’s border checks for Covid. As I write, the news is filled with complaints about the personal distress caused by ArriveCan, the government’s online system for verifying that you have been vaccinated, and the requirement to show a negative PCR test for Covid.

I’m all the way in with the strong measures Dr. Henry advocates and has implemented. You don’t stop the spread of a deadly virus with porous borders. “Be safe,” as she says. But it would be helpful to have a sensible, much less expensive, border policy for people who need to travel to the U.S. and return home to Canada.

“Be kind,” she also says, and that could mean understanding those who, puzzlingly, are refusing to get vaccinated. I suggest it could also apply where Canadians are caught in the bureaucratic quagmire at the border. “Be calm,” she adds, but that’s difficult when you are trying to fill out an ArrivCan form on your phone at sundown. Be angry, be frustrated, and be short more than $1,000. These, too, come to mind as you sit in your $200 hotel room waiting for a negative test to arrive by email.

The day I finished writing, the federal government announced that the pricey PCR tests would no longer be required for vaccinated Canadians. In the same newscast, 19 more British Columbians had died of Covid and hospitals were filling up again. Thank you, Dr. Bonnie. We need you as much as ever.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer, receives an honorary degree at Royal Roads University in Colwood, October 2020. Photo by Dan Anthon, courtesy CTV News Victoria

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker, recently moved to Victoria. His work has appeared in The Ormsby Review since it was founded in 2016. Editor’s note: Ron’s book Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for Its Life in Wartime Western Canada will be published soon by University of Toronto Press. See here for Ron’s essay in The Ormsby Review on Trade Unionist Harvey Murphy and here for Mike Sasges’ review of Ron’s Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb. Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Tim Cook, Greg Nesteroff & Eric BrightonNick RussellJim ChristyJohn JensenCharlie Hodge & Dan McGauley, Eric Sager, and Michael Dupuis & Michael Kluckner for The Ormsby Review.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

 The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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