The vice-chair of Toronto Public Health has responded to the backlash she’s experienced since penning a column about the largest recorded case of COVID-19, but told a roomful of students that the “hostile” reaction had nothing to do with her response to climate change and everything to do with her style of writing.
In a now-deleted column published Friday morning, Dr. Heather Chalmers chastised the news media for having a sense of outrage that is “clearly misplaced.”
“I am sorry for anyone who feels I inadvertently insulted people, let alone one of our city’s closest and most respected media,” Chalmers wrote, though she did not deny creating the post.
Chalmers, who teaches at the University of Toronto and is a research chair at York University, told the media that, while researching the post, she was somewhat “neither a scientist nor an educator” and, from that perspective, she did not reach the right conclusion.
The article in question centered on a weeklong treatment for the virus, which happens to disproportionately affect indigenous people. In Canada, indigenous people accounted for 72% of the patients seen in a Toronto hospital, she wrote.
In the column, Chalmers explained that education and policy have not “sufficiently addressed the stress and social isolation” that can be behind this situation. But some indigenous leaders and researchers have criticised Chalmers’ view as poorly-informed, and in turn, some people on Twitter accused her of being ignorant and racist.
And the following day, while speaking at the Toronto Health Partnership Conference about climate change, Chalmers said that her only aim in the first column was to “promote discourse on a topic that I’m passionate about.”
“I really did not want to write an opinion piece. I wanted to write a set of facts on this issue and to hopefully facilitate a forum around discussing that on these stages,” she said.
The incident “doesn’t dissuade me from feeling very passionately about this subject and being passionate about continuing this conversation,” she continued.
However, it’s unclear whether Chalmers will continue to be involved in TPH—at least at this point. She could not say whether her involvement will be curtailed.
“Our two organizations are separate and can operate independently, we’re a very tight knit and close knit organization,” she said.
Chalmers stood by her comments about media having a sense of outrage that is “clearly misplaced.”
“I’m a person who has very strong opinions about the issues, and I’m going to be expressing those opinions in media,” she said.
‘We don’t even get right answers on the questions that impact our population’
The question, and debate, is not only about COVID-19, but also about her broader role and the potential opinions she might be able to provide.
“We can be very concerned and very concerned about the climate change agenda, and we could really get right answers on that issue, and ask many of the questions that were posed in that piece,” Dr. Talia Berglas, who has been closely following the COVID-19 debate on social media, told CNN.
“We really don’t know how to respond to many questions related to public health on the ground, especially health messages to the people who actually live with the problems,” she said.
Berglas explained that most often, advice comes from medical experts who she said cannot always be trusted as they are “not necessarily available to speak on the ground in a very responsive manner.”
Still, Berglas said she believes communities, and not government, are best suited to understand public health.
“If you look at past outbreaks, local community has been very critical,” she said. “They know the community, they can recognize the infection.”
“Nobody comes in with $100,000 and says, ‘we need to create an alert system,'” she said. “We don’t even get right answers on the questions that impact our population.”
That means Chalmers is making a “valuable contribution” but, “it needs to be a little bit more pragmatic.”