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Dr. Bonnie Henry's book offers insight into early days of the COVID-19 pandemic

Last Updated Mar 13, 2021 at 4:08 am EDT

VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s top doctor says a burning anxiety in the pit of her stomach had become her constant companion as China began reporting a few cases of an unusual pneumonia in Wuhan in December 2019. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry writes in her new book, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe,” co-written with her sister Lynn Henry, that the sense of dread didn’t ease as the number of cases climbed in China.

Among other things, the book provides a behind-the-scenes look at the decisions she made to close restaurants, businesses and schools. It also explains how Henry came up with phrase “be kind, be calm, be safe,” which has become her mantra, featured on T-shirts and painted on rocks. 

When Henry declared a public emergency, she says she also wanted to give people hope.  That’s when the words kindness, calm and safe came to mind, she writes in the book, published by Penguin Random House Canada.

“I believe we need hope, too,” Henry is quoted in a section written by her sister, “For me, ‘be kind’ fosters emotional well-being and gives people a sense of belonging; ‘be calm’ is about mental well-being and gives meaning; and ‘be safe’ is about physical well-being and gives us a sense of purpose.”

The book says Henry decided to reopen schools because they are a safe place for children where they have access to food, health and social supports. Children with special needs were likely to be more affected, British Columbia’s provincial health officer says.

“Teachers and staff were uniquely placed to notice whether children were in danger at home and to intervene,” she says in the book.

Henry also explains why the province’s modelling projections don’t include a death count. She says the number of deaths is dependent on the government’s response and its ability to prevent transmission, particularly in long-term care homes.

The book recalls how she told a journalist that in B.C., public health officials do not predict the number of deaths. Henry says she realizes her position put her at odds with other public health officials in Canada and elsewhere who present models that project death rates.

The advance the Henry sisters received for the book has been donated to charities that help communities hit hard by the pandemic. 

The book also opens a window to the toll the pandemic has taken on Henry.

“My sister came home to find me lying on the living-room floor, still in my work clothes, too tired to move,” Henry says in the book.

“She ordered takeout from my favourite restaurant and poured me a glass of wine, and for an hour or two I almost relaxed. But that night, the spectre of the next few weeks, and how critical they would be, whirled ceaselessly through my mind.”

It offers some lighter observations as well.

“We have learned the true value of toilet paper. We’ve learned that you should never ever do your own hair in a pandemic,” she writes.

“But we have also learned that we can be resilient and adaptable, even when it’s hard. That social connections, even when virtual, are essential. That compassion is stronger than cynicism. That even when faced with unrelenting uncertainty, there is still joy and beauty in the world.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press