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Dr. Theresa Tam foresaw her job would mean 'harnessing the efforts of the many'

Last Updated Mar 16, 2020 at 11:56 pm EST

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, on Monday, March 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — When Dr. Theresa Tam first got the top public health job in Canada, she said something that has turned out to be prophetic.

Her job, she said, would be all about “harnessing the efforts of the many to protect and promote the health of all Canadians, including the most vulnerable in our society.”

When she said those words nearly three years ago, Tam probably didn’t imagine she would be ordering Canadians not to leave the country and to socially distance themselves en masse.

The novel coronavirus and its menacing disease, COVID-19, has led to unprecedented public health measures in the country and around the world.

The woman leading Canada through the crisis is no stranger to pandemics, and what it takes to fight them.

Tam, who doesn’t seem to have taken a day off yet this year, has gone through the same sleepless, arduous fight against SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009.

Internationally, she’s advised the World Health Organization on infectious diseases like Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and poliovirus.

But this time she’s leading the charge.

Her job description is complex. Her main role is provide advice to the federal minister of health. But she’s also responsible for heading the Public Health Agency of Canada, created in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak of 2003 to respond to future pandemics.

She is also the main co-ordinator between public health agencies across the country. In a system that provides different health systems in every province, perhaps her most important job is to be Canada’s unifying and rallying voice in the fight against COVID-19.

“All Canadians must act now,” Tam warned Monday at a press briefing with federal ministers.

Born in Hong Kong, Tam got her medical degree in the United Kingdom before completing her pediatric residence at the University of Alberta and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia.

Since then, she’s developed an expertise in immunization, infectious disease, emergency preparedness and global health security.

It’s hard to know if anything could have prepared her for issuing directives, and sometimes bad news, to more than 37 million Canadians. On Monday she announced that people should avoid gatherings of more than 50 people, putting weddings and other lifetime milestones in jeopardy across the country.

“This disease and this outbreak will disrupt our lives,” she said “But for some the disease will be much worse, severe and life threatening.”

Each day, her steely, distinctive voice reminds Canadians that there’s little public health officials can do on their own — that it’s up to everyone to protect each other from falling victim to COVID-19, and keep it from becoming one of the deadliest viral outbreaks to hit Canada in recent memory.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press