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The Lesson From COVID 19: Politicians Stay Away
By Dr Neelam Batra-Verma

How British Columbia flattened its curve is the lesson for the world.

Till the time of going to press, there were about 95,000 cases in Canada and just 2632 of those, in the province of British Columbia (BC). Unlike in other provinces of Canada like Ontario and Quebec, there has not been a spurt of cases but scattered cases do come up like the latest being in a poultry plant and a corrections institution. There have been about 4000 deaths in all of the country, with majority of cases in ill kept and maintained seniors’ centres.

As restrictions loosen and hospitality industry slowly opens up their doors and children in BC plan to go back to school, just for a couple of weeks before summer vacations start, some parents are still to decide whether they are ready to send their children to school despite still some risks, or continue to educate them at home, the fight against COVID-19 is far from over. It is continuing and will do so, till obviously, we are not all vaccinated. But till then, staying safe and making healthy personal and social choices is the name of the game.

How British Columbia flattened the curve

It is worth analysing as to the reason of the low data in British Columbia province compared to other parts of the Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could not help commenting during his daily press briefing, at the encouraging BC numbers, “the numbers are promising but now is not the time to get complacent and start ignoring the public health orders that led to that decrease. People need to know that the decline in the rate of transmission happened because people started heeding these instructions and started self-isolating and started engaging in social distancing,” he said. “If we’re seeing a reduction in the spikes, that means what we are doing is working, and we therefore need to continue what we are doing. We are not out of the woods yet.”

Experts are citing a number of reasons that the province is able to control the spread of disease, resulting in the province allowing its people to start going out and socialize in low numbers. One of the main reasons being cited is the attitude of people, who take their health seriously. According to a report released by the Conference Board of Canada, BC scored top marks when it comes to health. The report says some Canadians can be healthier than others, but British Columbians topped the list.  Life expectancy rates, self-reported health, mortality death to cancer or premature morality are lowest compared to the rest of the country. However, prevalence of diabetes is the highest in the province.

Healthy life-style of British Columbians

Experts believe that individual choices have significantly played an important role in British Columbians’ health. Making healthy food choices, getting regular physical activity and good life-style habits, all have contributed to low COVID numbers. Most British Columbians take their health seriously and research has shown that BC is strong in just the right facets of living for example physical activity is the highest in the country. The fact that beautiful mountains, valleys and hills, national parks, surround the province certainly attracts the avid runner, walker or the cyclist. People in the province like to spend time outdoors, climb mountains and go on a hike, weather permitting. Smoking and drinking rates are lower, though people still enjoy their beers and consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially super foods, is higher. The fact that organic consumption of foods is highest in Canada shows consumers’ willingness to pay and not compromise on their health. Someone said it right: Eat food like medicine or you will eat medicine like food. And most British Columbians take the adage seriously, thus keeping obesity rates low.

Following rules is the habit

Yet another fact that has played in keeping COVID rates low is that British Columbians are more likely to follow rules, due to their education level and their trust on experts. In a recent report, British Columbians are the second most educated populace in the country. Almost 30 per cent of the population in BC is immigrants. Since most immigrants coming from South Asia or China, come with college or university degrees and they are the most likely to send their children for post-secondary education, the education level of the population goes up. Even refugees tend to upgrade their education and go back to school to earn degrees.

Dr Bonnie Henry: A leader who connects

However, one of the main factors for British Columbians to feel confident in lifting restrictions is the confidence they have in their provincial health officer, Dr Bonnie Henry, who talked to the people non-stop for the first 156 days straight without a day’s break. Despite the Premier and Provincial health minsters taking the stage on these daily briefing, most of the time the podium to talk directly to the people about the safety guidelines, was given to her. Unlike in the USA where Donald Trump gave comical statements like drinking disinfectants with his health officials shying away from such statements, in BC instructions came from an expert herself, who was not garnering votes for next elections. It was evident; welfare of people was a priority for her. She is no politician and people trust her more as she is one of them – an average government worker, who worked hard, to research and get right information to share with the population. British Columbians believed her as she could relate to the common man. By cutting her own hair, like most of the community, she emphasized the importance of social distancing and that there was no special treatment for her. She is like all of us. If her fans couldn’t visit a hair salon, so couldn’t she.  “We are all in the same boat. And we are all in this together and we will come out of it together,” she emphasized. She talked, people listened and obeyed. Always ending her press conference with ‘Be kind, be calm, be safe,’ is not ignored.

From just a nobody, today Dr Bonnie Henry is a household respected name and if she talks, people listen. Her mushrooming fame got international attention resulting in New York Times calling her a Lockdown Leader.

British Columbians trust to her to take their welfare seriously. And she takes every death that took place in the province and for which she had to talk about at a press conference, personally. To the extent that if you watch her from the confines of your home, you cannot miss a tear in the corner of her eyes and the quiver in her voice. With her training on infectious diseases, specialty training in public health and preventive medicine, she has become a household trustworthy name and a leader people wait to listen and follow her instructions seriously.

Her instructions to keep distance, wear masks and socialize in smallest groups are taken seriously to the extent that when the hospitality industry called upon her to request people that it is safe to visit restaurants, which follow cleaning guidelines, people did. The day after when she told people that it is safe to keep distance and eat out, those empty restaurants were suddenly humming with activity after months of lockdown. Such is her charisma and magnetism on the people of the province.

Her fan club grew to the extent that a shoemaker John Fluevog, a prominent Canadian shoe company, dedicated a design to her and called it Dr Henry, Limited Edition with her message ‘be kind, be calm, be safe’. Starting at $339, the shoes were sold out online within a few hours of coming for sale. “We clearly underestimated your enthusiasm,” the brand’s Twitter account posted. The company donated all proceeds of sales to local food banks.

Public private partnership

When other provinces were still dillydallying on quarantine, Dr Henry advocated quarantine for 2 weeks after returning from abroad, way back on March 12. She quickly put together a team of additional epidemiologists by calling on the private laboratories, thus increasing testing and contact tracing, which now has proved to be a game changer and perhaps, one of the main reasons for flattening the curve. She herself oversees a team of 120 people working on communicable team, some of them who were former employees and were asked to come back. That was a sharp increase from a team of just 13 people before the pandemic. Undoubtedly, she acted faster than other provinces due to her experience with global epidemic like SARS.

A human touch and not the politics what is needed in a crises

Her booming popularity goes on to show that people are sick of listening to politicians, who come around only during election time. Experts of professions should not be over shadowed by vote seeking politicians no one will listen to. At times of crisis, people have no choice but to turn to their governments. Just like Canada, which doled out economic relief packages for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, Germany too gave its citizens economic support. No wonder some leaders’ popularity skyrocketed while for those like the leader Pedro Sánchez in Spain, one of the worst effected countries in the COVID crisis, took a downfall. However, this is not the time to think about the next election but a time of unity to come together to fight the common enemy.

It cannot be denied that while politics is not an exact science, COVID is based on reliable science and should be left to the experts. During times of crises, frightened population want to trust someone who has more knowledge and experience than them and not on someone with second hand information. Lack of communication might break the chain and result in misinformation. Some issues are best kept away from the politicians.

Free Lance Writer. Author Of 1971: A War Story

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