Why are critics targetting Canada's Chief of Public Health, Dr. Theresa Tam?

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday April 2, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

What’s happening?

The latest target of vitriolic partisan politics is none other than Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. On Tuesday, Conservative MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington, Derek Sloan who is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) questioned Dr.Tam’s loyalties asking if she was working for Canada or China.

Sloan called for Dr. Tam to be fired or resign for misleading Canadians, and for constantly following the World Health Organization’s policies on face masks and more. Tam has been Canada’s top doctor since 2017 and has been the leading hand for the country against COVID-19. Her medical background includes specialization in infectious diseases, a graduate of the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program and has over 50 peer-reviewed journals on public health. 

Prior to becoming Canada’s top doctor, she served as Deputy Chief Public Health Officer and the Assistant Deputy Minister for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. Her two decades of experience in public health has seen her be involved with SARS, H1N1 and Ebola. She’s also previously served on a variety of WHO committees and missions related to outbreaks of viruses and influenza. 

Why is there debate?

Dr. Tam is a visible minority who was born in Hong Kong, and the assertion that she is working for China is considered by many to be xenophobic and racist in nature. Many including Sloan’s fellow party members have declared his attacks on Tam less based on science, and more personal. 

The handling of the situation by Conservative Party of Canada leader, Andrew Scheer has been considered weak by some political pundits. 

“As a rule, I don’t comment on leadership candidates or on policy announcements or positions that leadership candidates have taken,” Mr. Scheer said. “Ultimately, it will be up to members to select the next leader of the party.”

There are actual queries about Dr. Tam’s about-face regarding face masks on April 6, where she had said prior that using a face mask was not necessary for members of the public. She cited new evidence advising the Canadian public to wear a non-medical mask in public when physical distancing is not practical.

Canada’s response to COVID-19 was largely based on the information provided by the WHO. In January, Dr. Tam went on the record to say we should take COVID-19 seriously, but there is no major cause for concern. Information at the time was relatively new, and even the WHO on Jan. 15 said coronavirus could not be spread through human to human interaction.

"We've got serious concerns about the accuracy of the information coming out of the WHO and its incumbent upon this government to explain why they have based so many of their decisions on the WHO," Scheer said earlier this month.

What’s next?

For Dr. Teresa Tam, she’s trying not to focus on partisan politics, but rather working on helping create policy, guidelines and control the pandemic.

"My singular focus is to work with all my colleagues to get this epidemic wave under control. I don't let noise sort of detract me from doing that,” she said when asked about Sloan’s comments.

Tam said she had been working at least 20 hours a day since COVID-19 hit Canada, "I'm a pretty focused person and I work really, really hard," she said.

Since Sloan’s original video, he has yet to recant his comment, but has instead doubled down and shared an email on his social media he had sent out to his supporters which lays out his reasoning for wanting Dr. Tam gone. He’s also signed onto a letter by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute which calls out China for delaying response and information regarding the seriousness of COVID-19. 

Sloan is known for his controversial topics previously calling protestors at Tyendinaga “extremists”, arguing that being gay is a choice and stating he would allow bills to make same-sex marriage illegal and re-open the abortion debate.

Perspectives 

Racism has no place in Canada.

“Intolerance and racism have no place in our country, Canada has succeeded because of our diversity...Canadians deserve better than this from all of us. We need to continue in our resolve to be an open, welcoming respectful country and I think all Canadians expect that of every politician.” - Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau 

This brings disgrace to the oath of office.

“What I view as a personal attack against Dr.Tam from a member of our Opposition caucus goes against the values that I believe we as elected officials should aspire to.” - Dan Albas, Conservative MP for Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola via Twitter

Conservatives should speak up, or get out.

What reasonable party doesn’t discipline or at least repudiate a member of the caucus who smears the country’s leading health official during a pandemic with a dog-whistle racial taunt? At least say something like, “This party believes that despite our differences, Dr. Tam is a proud Canadian doing what she believes will keep Canadians safe. We may disagree with her decisions, but would never impugn her patriotism.” - Bruce Arthur, Toronto Star

If Scheer doesn’t see the need to decry comments from a sitting member of caucus that tars all Conservative MPs and the party with the brush of intolerance, he should go now. - John Ivison, National Post

From the beginning of this crisis, we’ve heard horrible stories of abuse faced by Asian Canadians, particularly those of Chinese descent. There is no question that MP Sloan’s comments against Dr. Theresa Tam fuel this kind of racism. Andrew Scheer needs to clearly denounce this. - Jagmeet Singh, NDP Federal Leader via Twitter

Women in power are always attacked.

If you truly wanted to help us make better policy decisions related to COVID-19, why didn't you just talk about policy failures and how you would fix them? Why did you make it personal, and ask if a woman of Asian descent worked for China? - CPC MP for Calgary Nose Hill, - Michelle Rempel via Twitter

It comes with the job, unfortunately.

“I think it comes with the job and with the circumstance and they shouldn’t take it too seriously,” said Sen. Peter Harder, a former senior civil servant. The entire public service is having to work at top speed to roll out the government’s response to the pandemic, he said, and is having to embrace more risk than it’s used to.Senator Peter Harder via Politico