COVID-19 pandemic: The “Canadian” story of a lifetime for André Picard

Posted on Monday, December 14, 2020

Profile of Andre Picard

The University of Ottawa alumni and Globe and Mail health columnist discussed the coronavirus pandemic and Canada’s response in the Alex Trebek Distinguished Lecture Series

COVID-19 has been the story of a lifetime for renown health journalist André Picard, who told an Alex Trebek Distinguished Lecture Series virtual audience that our Canadian culture may have played the greatest influence in our handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Picard (BAdm '86) was welcomed to the Alumni series event hosted by Colleen Flood with an eye on discussing the social aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hour-long discussion centered on Canada’s wins and failures in tackling the virus since its emergence in Wuhan, China, approximately one year ago.

Picard considers himself – and other journalists – as a “translator” in his role at The Globe and Mail, whose public service as a newspaper is to analyze what scientists and public health authorities say and summarize it to the public; a type of “service journalism.”

“It’s the story of a lifetime and we are the only people on earth who are benefiting from this, in a strange way. It’s a special time and I have a little bit of a contribution to make to it,” says the uOttawa alumni, who rated the government’s handling of the crisis as typically Canadian.

“This has been a reflection of Canadian character. Culture matters a lot and Canadian culture is very cautious and prefers to go slow. Canada, like most of the world, didn’t take this seriously from the offset. What happened in Italy should have been a wake-up call. We allowed ourselves to be lulled into doing nothing for a long time.”

What the pandemic has done is exposed weaknesses that have long existed but should no longer be ignored: homelessness, the dramatic and tragic treatment of our elderly, and a lack of support for racialized workers in low-wage jobs.

“Where did we fail worst? Elder care. We need to rethink elder care from bottom up,” said Picard, referring to the 12,000 seniors who have been killed by COVID-19. Exemplary precautions that safeguarded hospitals were in stark contrast to the measures at long-term care homes, where the elderly, staff and care workers were left to their own defenses without adequate resources. Picard feels this has also exposed the gender-nature of the pandemic, with many of those affected being women, who make up much of the workforce in those places most touched.

“The flip-side is this (pandemic) provides a way to fix things that have been exposed in an awful way. Healthcare should be put at the center of all policies now,” said Picard, whose next book will examine the state of long-term care in the country.

With Canadians preparing for a Christmas under lockdown, Picard suggested public health authorities need to get more creative and sophisticated in communicating the necessary sacrifice lockdowns will entail. British Columbia has been a standout example for letting public health officials – not politicians – lead the dialogue.

“Sympathy and empathy are needed from public health; we almost need a war time message. This is a Churchillian period of sacrificing until the light of the dawn of the day,” Picard said. “Miss the holidays just this once because it will pay off going forward. You have to go all in on this – we can’t be wishy washy, polite Canadians.”

With a vaccine rollout imminent, Picard identified several positives outcomes from this experience, from work being fundamentally change to cities being remodelled. But it is in the domain of digital health where he sees great optimism.

“One of the best things to come out of it is digital health – a decades worth of progress has been completed in a matter of months,” he said. “This has troubled me for decades, why don’t we scale up our successes more forcibly, why don’t we tap into our successes in health care in Canada.”


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