Special edition on the non-apologetic apology, July 29-August 4, 2021

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The Missive” on Aug.15, 2021. Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/ or access background info and special content with a paid subscription.

I was going to write my newsletter yesterday, but I had that jittery thing before you jump in and start writing, when you are pacing around the room thinking about everything you want to write but can’t seem to sit still and start. A thing my former colleague, now retired, Robb has named, “just-about-the-end of procrastination” AKA “deadline actually becoming real.”

After an hour or so, I gave up and brewed some “Restful Sleep” tea before watching Netflix and going to bed.

The days leading up to this had been pretty eventful. Protests have been growing bigger every day in Edmonton and Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge. There has been a huge backlash over the decision to end current COVID-19 protocols of testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation as of August 16.

Doctors across the province were caught completely off-guard by the decision and reacted ferociously:

“It’s an abdication of our responsibility as adults, as parents, to protect our children.” Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, a general internist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary told the Calgary Herald

Now, I’m so glad I waited until today because of what popped up on Twitter.

In a highly unusual move, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health issued a statement in response to the protests and uproar.

Perhaps Dr. Deena Hinshaw should’ve also brewed some tea and gone to bed last night. Instead, it looks like she was up late writing a letter to Albertans. It was an apology of sorts, although as far as apologies go, it likely fails to meet the criteria of an effective one.

“I am sorry that the way I communicated about the planned changes to our COVID-19 response has caused feelings of confusion, fear or anger for some people. I am hearing that the message people received from my words was that I think COVID is over, and that people are being left on their own to deal with it.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw

The first rule of apologies is – take full responsibility for your behaviour or action.

In the case of Dr. Hinshaw, she apologizes for the way she “communicated about the planned changes,” assuming that her method of communicating – and not the changes themselves – was the source of the problem. WRONG.

She then went on to say: “That was not my intended message, so I want to share some of the rationale behind the changes and why I believe this course of action will support the whole health of Albertans.” Having messed up her communication first time around, she then tries a different way of explaining, without backing down on any of her planned actions.

This fails on three of the six elements of an effective apology: an expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance.

1.     She does not regret her course of action. She only regrets people misinterpreted her messaging about it.

2.     She does not bother to explain what went wrong in the first place with her communication. Did she do any soul-searching or change her thinking in any way? This is certainly not evident in the letter.

3.     She does not repent or back down on her plans. No, she goes all in on her original plan.

Instead, she explains how COVID-19 has taken too many resources away from other threats like syphilis and opioid deaths, failing to mention that the pandemic did not stop the government from moving aggressively on many other healthcare fronts, including shutting down supervised consumption sites. She does not offer anything new about her comparison of COVID to the flu, which was a big part of the original announcement and a source of much confusion.

No one’s buying this new argument. Sorry.

By the way, the content of an apology is important but so is the way it is delivered.

“That’s why it’s important to deliver an apology face-to-face whenever you can. An “I’m sorry” over email–or text message–will likely fall short. The recipient wants to see and hear that you’re authentic in your regret.” Amy Morin, Forbes magazine

Oops. Another fail.

But back to the content, Dr. Hinshaw tries out some new messaging on the old plan: “We will not eliminate COVID, which means we need to learn how to live with it.” Her argument is repeated that we “cannot sustain” the current “extraordinary measures” through the next flu season. She repeats her message that since the risk is lower now due to vaccine protection, we are supposed to believe a full rollback of the protocols is reasonable.

But the rest of the world overwhelmingly disagrees. There is that SMALL problem with this argument that Dr. Hinshaw simply fails to even mention in her letter.

Next, the letter dives into the “anxiety” about kids under 12 with this gem: “kids aged 5 to 14 had a 140 times greater risk of an emergency department visit for a sports-related injury than their risk of COVID-related hospital admission” an argument that didn’t impress many and certain doesn’t address new evidence emerging about the number of children seriously ill with the new Delta variant.

Even after five days of protests (the sixth happened this evening), media coverage, letters of concern from medical professionals, social media outrage, op-eds and letters to the editor, she does not explain why she chose such a reckless approach, except with this strange statement:

“COVID-19 is a wicked problem; experts don’t always agree on the exact nature of the problem, much less the best approach. But it is not the only wicked problem we are facing together.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw

Dr. Hinshaw badly needed an editor. Not only is the word “wicked” not at all appropriate, she repeated it for emphasis, which is doubly cringeworthy. A virus is not “evil or morally wrong” which is the formal meaning of the word. Good grief, someone get her a dictionary app please.

She goes on to say that “In addressing these complex issues, we are best served by trying to understand each other’s perspectives, engaging in respectful dialogue, and continuing to assess our approach.” All good things, but when and how is she planning to start doing this? We haven’t seen much – if any – of this so far. In fact, part of the reason she’s in this mess is because she failed to do any of these things.

Nothing like throwing out magical word dust in an attempt at turning a frog of a letter into a princely communication plan.

As for understanding, that starts with answering people’s questions. Dr. Hinshaw, Premier Kenney and Minister Shandro have all failed to provide answers about the science they say backs their approach. There’s just a lot of finger pointing between these three, mostly in the direction of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer even seemed to politely contradict Dr. Hinshaw at a news conference in Ottawa last Friday: “I firmly believe that quarantine and isolation can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in light of the spread of the Delta variant,” said Theresa Tam.

She urged people to continue isolating, get tested for COVID-19 and inform their close contacts even if it is no longer required. (she’s looking at us, Alberta)

The problem is of course, isolating is not always possible and removing the mandatory requirement will make it even harder for employees in tenuous jobs, marginalized people (including the unhoused) and increase the risks to children returning to school this fall.

Informing close contacts is very labour intensive at the best of times and now isn’t even required. AHS has already started laying off their contact tracers. They’ve also publicly admitted there were gaps in contact tracing the many COVID Stampede-goers who tested positive following that event in early July. If it isn’t a big deal for Stampede, why would people undertake it privately?

Testing will only be available for those who need hospitalization, unless you have a doctor you can convince to test you. Only symptomatic testing is recommended to doctors.

Otherwise, you will have to pay privately for a test.

Yes, you heard that right. Rapid COVID tests will become available for a fee from private companies, including the one that received a lot of attention this past week whose board includes none other than well-known conservative apologist Jack Mintz, of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

For added spice, Mintz also sits on the board of Alberta Health Services. No conflict there at all, I’m sure.  

Dr. Hinshaw also clearly hasn’t engaged in respectful dialogue with organizations like the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Alberta Medical Association who’ve both written letters of concern. Also opposed to the plan have been many individual physicians, the United Nurses of Alberta, the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff and even the Federal Health Minister, Patty Hajdu.

“I echo the Canadian Paediatric Society, who has called on you to recognize that this ‘unnecessary and risky gamble’ could worsen the spread of the virus and put children at risk.”

Patty Hajdu

Finally, Dr. Hinshaw wraps up her non-apology with this flawed message on the vaccine:

“I cannot stress enough that vaccines are our most powerful tool in the fight against this virus. While the coverage we have in this province minimizes the threat of overwhelming the health care system, the virus remains a significant risk. Now is the best time to choose to be protected, both for yourself and those around you.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw

Yes, she emphasizes that vaccines are our “most powerful tool” but then she dilutes the message by adding the “coverage we have minimizes the threat.”

Translation: “We’ve got good coverage already everyone, not to worry.” This is just the type of message that will be seized upon by the vaccine-hesitant folks.  

Alberta vaccination rates need to go up and the higher, the better. This should be the only message. Get vaccinated. Not “choose to be protected” which is so soft it almost disappears into the overly wordy paragraph.

This letter is not an explanation of what went wrong with her first messaging. It’s not offering any answers or new information. Dr. Hinshaw does not offer an effective apology by any standard. She certainly does not deliver a clear call-to-action on getting vaccinated either.

Apology not accepted. 

Jody MacPherson is a professional communicator, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and her favourite book of all time is the dictionary.

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