Defending public health work

Public health agencies have carried the weight of this pandemic for many months now. As COVID-19 cases rise across Canada and the Fall reveals clear signs of a second wave, it is important to remember the role and purpose of public health workers at all levels -- local, provincial and national.

Defending public health work
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Yesterday, it was reported that British Columbia's provincial health officer, the much respected Bonnie Henry, has received death threats and abuse during the past few months.

This it not the first time that high profile public health officers have been the target of attacks. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has faced months of targeted attacks and racist comments.

Regardless of where these attacks are coming from – and whether the far-right is actively spreading misinformation by undermining public health messaging – public health workers need defending.

Public health units have acted as a bright star in the desert during this pandemic. They were the only ones to take notes during previous epidemics that gave us some hints as to what to do when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Public health units provided the necessary response plans to governments of all stripes who had not bothered to read those carefully collected notes. Thanks to public health units, those governments were given the tools, the plans and the message points to shine through the rubble in a time of crisis. It is so noteworthy that many of those very governments who were aided by public health officers in their response had their funding cut and operations reorganized in previous years – undermining the very forces that would help them navigate a crisis.

When the same governments got steady on their feet, they started creating more distance between what they were telling populations and what public health was recommending, thus creating massive confusion and less compliance with guidelines. There is a high level of professional patience required of public health workers who deal with governments and people who wanting answers no one has or do not like, and who criticize at the sign of any change in guidelines. The truth is, the information we have about this virus changes daily, and today's guidelines are bound to be different than the ones we had in March.

Public health have scientific processes that help them issue guidelines and warnings during events that may put the public at risk, a pandemic being but one obvious example. Their processes should not need to be shrouded in opaqueness so that politicians can tweak the results that are shared with the public. Openness should be the guiding principle and would only help with understanding – an opaqueness that is being abused by reactionary elements in society for their own gains.

If public health workers are going to come under attack in any coordinated way, there must be a coordinated response to defend the public service that is provided by these all-important workers.

The clear response is to fund public health properly, build trust in public health guidance through openness of decision making, and defend public health workers from attacks.