‘Be soft, but honest’: Dr. Peter Jüni reflects as he leaves Ontario COVID-19 science table post
When Dr. Peter Jüni goes out in public, he gets recognized, even when he’s got his mask on. A woman came up to him in a Home Depot recently because she spotted his hair.
“It’s a surprising experience for somebody like me. I’m really not accustomed to that,” he said.
The Swiss physician-epidemiologist, who steps down as scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table as of Monday, became an unlikely pandemic celebrity and one of the province’s most familiar science voices.
As the table’s de facto spokesperson, he rarely turned down an interview — offering frank assessments of the government’s pandemic policies and calm explanation of where the province was headed, despite any dangers.
“His consistency, his commitment, his raw intelligence has just been remarkable to watch and to be part of and to work with him on,” said Adalsteinn Brown, Jüni’s boss, who co-chairs the table and is dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Toronto physician Dr. Fahad Razak takes over the role, as the table folds into the purview of Public Health Ontario.
Jüni’s looking forward to stepping back from the spotlight, taking a tenured clinical trials professorship in the department of population health at University of Oxford in England, starting July 1. He knows he won’t get stopped in the street anymore.
“I saw how liberating this was when I was in Quebec for a few days with our family. I walked at the beach and nobody recognized me,” he said. “I can just be an academic perhaps for a few years.”
It also means being closer to his and his wife’s families, in Switzerland and Slovakia. Jüni spoke to the CBC about moving on, meditation and staying off social media, in a conversation condensed and edited for clarity and length.
How do you feel about giving up your title?
It’s really just about the right time now. We’re moving into a different phase of the pandemic … it feels right. For us, it was also very much a private decision because of our elderly parents (he’s an only child). Two of them got quite ill during the pandemic, not COVID. And two of our children are in Europe. All of that contributed and it just fell into place the way it did.
I made it very clear, you know, when we had the discussions in Oxford that I would only leave when I saw that this province would be in relatively quiet waters. So take it as a sign that I believe that’s actually the case.
What will you miss?
I feel I have a very intimate emotional connection with the people of this province. I find it amazing actually … how much people of this province were … respectful with each other, how much they embrace science.
Canada has become much more my home than Switzerland during this pandemic. It’s really true. I feel much more connected to the people here because the people haven’t forgotten how lucky they are just to be in this place and to have the stability that we have.
What have you learned about the public’s understanding of science and how it evolves? Has it frustrated you throughout the pandemic?
I just tried in every moment just to give an honest and hopefully understandable response. And the point, of course, is that nobody at the science table has had experience with what has happened during the last two years. Let’s face it.
I think my task was to make understandable what actually happens based on the math and the biology and the epidemiology knowledge that I had, but also make clear that we have what’s happening here, just evolution in real time.
One should be in awe, about this virus and about evolution.
I notice you don’t have Twitter. Do you pay attention to what people say about you or the science table online?
Not that much, to be honest with you … I’m not sure whether I would have kept my sanity if I had started to get involved with Twitter.
It was probably a good thing, you know?
I compare Twitter with an externalized mindstream that sometimes goes a bit overboard or probably quite frequently goes overboard. This is probably also becoming more extreme because of the algorithm they use to ensure retention of people. But also to have conflicts or disagreements in written form, it doesn’t really work well.
If you have a disagreement, we need to talk to people.
I remember talking to you last April and you being extremely emotional … You said it was the worst day of your career. (At the time, Jüni was so frustrated with the province’s measures, he considering stepping down). How have you dealt with the pandemic emotionally? What have you learned since that day?
I have a meditation background. I’ve been a long-term meditator for about 12 years or so. From my perspective, meditation is nothing else than to just stop resisting what is. This includes my own emotions and this also includes just feeling them and if I’m being asked about my emotions and talking about them and if it really makes me emotional, not to suppress it.
I told my wife a while ago my meditation retreat should have been tax deductible because I brought in quite a lot of experience and reasonable skill sets, etc.. But the other part really was just to be soft with what’s happening next and not resist it.
If you start to have an argument with what’s happening next, you’re already just behind. And the point is just go with it.
I can imagine staying calm and pressing on can be pretty challenging when decisions are being made provincially or federally that you don’t see eye-to-eye with.
We all make mistakes, every single one of us. Things are never as easy as they might look when you just look at things externally.
There was this phrase of “following the science.” I never liked that because I think if decision makers just were to follow the science, it simply wouldn’t work out that way. I think it’s great if they considered the science but I still think that they have a different role than we as scientists have. They need to consider the science.
The U.K. has absolutely outstanding scientists. Obviously, I’m biased, I’m moving there now, but it still didn’t work with the Conservative government. When I look at the performance our government had, despite all the bumps, and compare it with the performance that [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson’s government had regarding the pandemic, I mean, it’s very clear that we performed considerably better.
What impact do you think the science table played in that?
This is very difficult for me to tell. I believe that we probably played quite an important role in that. It was just giving an honest account of what’s happening and giving the same account to ministries, cabinet and the public. I think that was the part which was really important. Even if it was bumpy, we just kept doing that.
When I was just a clinician still working with patients, if you have a difficult message, you need to convey it. I think there is only one way that this really works, which is be soft, but honest.
If I’m not being honest with the person I’m talking to, I basically don’t give this person the opportunity to react accordingly. I start to be manipulative by not being honest.
[Around the Alpha variant], I sat at the family table thinking some people were a bit upset with me. And then my youngest daughter, who at that time was nine, was saying, ‘Why would they be upset?’ I don’t know. Probably because I was honest. And her response was, ‘What’s wrong with being honest?’
It changes the nature of relationships if you just commit to that, even if it’s difficult. And that’s how I try to live my relationships privately, including with my children and my wife.