A conversation with Dr. Vera Etches: Ottawa marks International Women’s Day

OTTAWA — In a conversation to mark International Women’s Day, Dr. Vera Etches, who is among those leading Ottawa’s fight against COVID-19, discussed what inspired her to pursue work in public health, her role models, and why she’s hopeful for the future.  

“I chose public health because it is about keeping people healthy,” Etches said to Mayor Jim Watson as part of the mayor’s annual International Women’s Day breakfast which was virtual this year because of the pandemic.

“It was really some time actually with public health nurses in Malawi, in Africa, that reinforced for me this was the kind of work that I wanted to do, that the public health nurses were tackling things like HIV/AIDS and they were inspiring in how they were working with the community, they knew the community, I felt that was the kind of workforce I wanted to be part of.” 

Dr. Etches said along with her parents, both physicians, one of her role models is Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the medical officer of health in Sudbury.  

“She showed how public health isn’t just about telling people to not smoke or eat your vegetables, but we need to look at the roots of what makes people healthy and keep people well and I really found that new approach to public health beneficial.” 

Etches credits her team with communicating and engaging with the community to ensure crucial information gets to everyone.

“I’m very proud of the team in the ways they have gone right to neighbourhoods facing [a] greater burden of COVID and even door-to-door in partnership with community leaders, faith leaders, community associations,” Etches said.

“I really think this has built stronger connections to neighbourhoods in the city where there may be less advantage and it’s made our response better and more effective and it think this is important for our public health approach going forward.” 

Etches also thanked those who have worked tirelessly on the front lines, many of them racialized women.

“I need to say thank you to all the essential workers and want to underline that we can’t get through this alone, we do need to support each other. It actually makes a difference to stay connected even if it’s by texting, phone calls,” Etches said. “We are needing to look after ourselves so that we can look after others. I think this has been something that’s not easy to keep in mind but again, blocking time for dinner with your family or blocking time for that physical activity, it actually will enable us to keep getting through and there will be an end in sight.”

When asked about her wishes for this year, Etches said she’s optimistic with the arrival of vaccines.  

“You have to celebrate the existence of vaccines, more than one vaccine, it does give us hope, it’s happened faster than I thought it would, based on the scientific technicalities required and I know it’s frustrating that we don’t have it as quickly as we want in the volumes we want but that is what we’re working on: as soon as vaccine arrives to be able to get it out and again, I’m proud of the team for continuously pivoting to the next challenge in the pandemic because it has been relentless.” 

“I really do look forward to the time when people can be with more of their close friends and family gatherings without having to be this distance apart and so it’s coming and I really want to thank everyone in Ottawa who’s been doing the hard work of keeping that distance, it has taken a toll, but we know we’ll get through,” Etches said.

Etches has also brought levity during a very tough time with a number of posts on Twitter showing she’s human just like everyone else, including one time when she arrived at City Hall without a skirt under her coat following a busy morning at home.

“I didn’t notice until I unzipped my jacket in city hall in front of security and I was like ‘oh dear’ that was shocking to me but it also told me this is the kind of situation we’re in where we’re under stress and we have to laugh,” Etches said. “We have to recognize the craziness and so I did share it on Twitter because I thought I’m not alone in how people are feeling stressed in the pandemic.”

During the virtual breakfast, it was also announced that the city signed Electricity Human Resources Canada’s Leadership Accord on Gender Diversity.

“We are committed to incorporate equity, diversity and inclusion in all the way[s] we deliver our services,” said councillor Theresa Kavanagh, council’s Liaison for Women and Gender Equity.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge” a call to action to call out gender inequality and to help create an inclusive world.

The day also celebrates the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women.”

“Today, in the context of this terrible global pandemic, we celebrate women who choose to challenge because from challenge comes change,” said Kavanagh.

The virtual breakfast ended with a performance from poet Zarah Maria Willow who recited a poem for little girls everywhere, saying in part: “people will attempt to tell you stories about who you are or shouldn’t be. Silence those voices swiftly, learn to listen closely to the beating of your own heart, echoes of the women who came before you, marching on their way to break down doors and hold them wide open for you so you may have room to be. So be, authentically you,” she said. 

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