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Once again, social media isn’t representative

Rob Shaw: Nearly two years into a pandemic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s support has slipped – but make no mistake, it’s still quite strong.
Covid-19 Update
Health Minister Adrian Dix and Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (BC Government Flickr)

BC’s Health Minister is shrugging off a new poll that shows declining public confidence in Canadian health leaders, as anger and frustration continues to rise two years into the pandemic.

Adrian Dix said there’s still a high degree of public support from the general public captured in a recent poll by Leger, and he doesn’t put much stock into vicious social media attacks by armchair epidemiologists seen on social media.

The Leger poll for Postmedia released this week showed 55 per cent of 1,002 people surveyed in December strongly supported Dix’s leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic, while 20 per cent did not support him at all. It was his lowest popularity in 2021, from a high of 67 per cent last January.

The Vancouver Sun story describing the poll, which contained the somewhat misleading headline “Popularity plummets for Dr. Bonnie Henry, Adrian Dix,” was widely shared on social media, and cited as proof for complaints about rapid tests, booster doses, gym closures, vaccination lineups, back-to-school policies and anything else that was pissing them off or scaring them at the moment.

Dix had a different take.

“I think it reflects the public support for the approach that isn’t reflected on social media,” he said.

“The real lesson for the poll is all the maelstrom on social media is not consistent with public support.”

Around 62 per cent of Leger respondents expressed support for Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, while 20 per cent expressed no confidence. That was down from a high of 75 per cent last January, though Henry’s popularity fluctuated throughout the year down to 65 per cent in April and back up to 69 per cent in June, according to Leger’s tracking.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam also showed declining popularity in the Leger survey.

Leger’s vice-president Heather Owen told Postmedia the declining public support numbers are “a natural outcome of the fatigue we’re all feeling with COVID-19.

“I also think that in many ways this pandemic is both a (physical) health crisis and a psychological crisis,” she told the paper. “Our mental health is suffering and these negative numbers are a reflection of that. People are tired and they want it to be over.”

There’s certainly truth to that.

And to find people in the full grips of mental health crises, you need look no further than Twitter, where anonymous, toxic, sexist, cruel, unqualified, miserable people beat on Henry, Dix, Premier John Horgan, Trudeau and other premiers like pinatas to vent their frustration, fear and anger over the neverending pandemic and the worrying Omicron variant. Half the time they don’t know what they are talking about. But it doesn’t stop them.

On social media, the public support for Henry and Dix appears to be almost zero. But it’s a good reminder that those people are but a very small sample of the larger real world.

Even if you believe Leger’s poll, almost two thirds of British Columbians surveyed still support the province’s top doctor, and only 20 per cent are in disagreement with the health minister. Those numbers are remarkably strong, two years into the largest health crisis in modern history.

It’s hard to say that out loud these days though without inciting the anger and bitterness of the extreme groups and online “critics” lurking for a fight on social media.

It’s equally hard to profess the middle position that politicians and health officials can make mistakes in their response, be criticized, and still be trustworthy and credible leaders in a crisis. We’re apparently just supposed to yell at them in all-caps on Twitter, and demand their heads on a platter to satiate our own misery.

Dix is one of the few BC cabinet ministers who regularly monitored Twitter, engaging with the public and journalists in the early days of COVID-19. He’s pulled back, as the vitriol climbed to outrageous proportions.

“I follow it sometimes just to get a sense of where the discussion is,” he said. “It’s always been true of the thing, you do a nastier partisan post to get more traction than others. I do find everybody who spends any time on there does yield the sharp comment or critical comment.”

It’s hard to blame him for tuning out the self-professed Twitter experts. Between the COVID zero extremists pushing for draconian lockdowns, anti-vaxer whackos who cite the Nuremberg Code, and anti-authority anarchists who want government to back off all public health restrictions, it’s difficult to gauge the mood of the majority of British Columbians.

But the Leger poll might just give us a glimpse. By and large, they’re still thankful to have the calm presence of Henry and Dix in charge during the crisis.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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