‘Be gentle, but honest’: Dr. Peter Jüni reflects as he leaves Ontario’s COVID-19 science table position


When Dr. Peter Jüni goes out in public, he is recognized, even if he wears his mask. A woman came to see him recently at a Home Depot because she spotted his hair.

“It’s a surprising experience for someone like me. I’m really not used to it,” he said.

The Swiss physician-epidemiologist, who stepped down as scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table on Monday, has become an unlikely pandemic celebrity and one of the province’s best-known scientific voices.

As the de facto spokesman for the table, he rarely refused an interview — offering candid assessments of the government’s pandemic policies and a calm explanation of where the province was headed, despite all the dangers.

“His consistency, his commitment, his raw intelligence has been remarkable to watch, be part of and work with him,” said Adalsteinn Brown, Juni’s boss, who co-chairs the table and is dean of the Dalla Lana school. public health at the University of Toronto.

Toronto physician Dr. Fahad Razak takes on the role, as the table folds under the responsibility of Public Health Ontario.

Jüni is looking forward to stepping back from the spotlight and taking up a tenure-track professorship of clinical trials in the Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford in England, starting July 1. He knows he won’t be stopped in the street again.

“I saw how liberating it was when I was in Quebec for a few days with our family. I was walking down the beach and no one recognized me,” he said. “I can just be an academic maybe for a few years.”

It also means getting closer to his family and that of his wife, in Switzerland and Slovakia. Jüni spoke to CBC about moving on, meditating and staying off social media, in a conversation condensed and edited for clarity and length.

How do you feel about giving up your title?

Now is really the right time. We are entering a different phase of the pandemic… it feels good. For us, it was also a very private decision because of our elderly parents (he is an only child). Two of them got very sick during the pandemic, not COVID. And two of our children are in Europe. It all contributed and it all fell into place the way he did.

Jüni and his wife have a blended family. They have two young children in Ontario, ages 8 and 10. She has a 16-year-old at boarding school in Switzerland, while he has a 31-year-old stepson he raised who also lives and works there. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

I said very clearly, you know, when we had discussions in Oxford, that I would only leave when I saw that this province was in relatively calm waters. So take that as a sign that I believe this is indeed the case.

What are you going to miss?

I feel like I have a very intimate emotional connection with the people of this province. I find it amazing actually…how people in this province were…respectful to each other, how much they embraced science.

Canada has become much more my home than Switzerland during this pandemic. It’s really true. I feel much more connected to people here because people haven’t forgotten how lucky they are to be here and to have the stability that we have.

What did you learn about the public’s understanding of science and its evolution? Has it frustrated you throughout the pandemic?

I just tried every moment to give an honest and hopefully understandable answer. And the point, of course, is that no one at the science table has had experience with what’s happened in the past two years. Let’s face it.

I think my task was to make understandable what is really going on based on the knowledge of math, biology and epidemiology that I had, but also to clarify that we have what is going on here, just an evolution in time real.

One should be impressed by this virus and by the evolution.

I notice you don’t have Twitter. Do you care what people say about you or the science table online?

Not that much, to be honest with you… I don’t know if I would have kept a cool head if I had started getting involved on Twitter.

It was probably a good thing, you know?

Jüni works as director of a research center at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto, in addition to his scientific position. He left Ontario after his children finished school in June. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

I liken Twitter to an outsourced mental stream that sometimes goes a little too far or probably quite frequently. It also probably gets more extreme due to the algorithm they use to retain 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 were extremely emotional… You said it was the worst day of your career. (At the time, Jüni was so frustrated with the province’s measures that he was considering resigning). How have you handled the pandemic emotionally? What have you learned since that day?

I have training in meditation. I have been a long term meditator for about 12 years or so. From my point of view, meditation is nothing more than to stop resisting what is. That includes my own emotions and that includes just feeling them and if I’m asked about my emotions and talking about them and if it makes me really emotional, not suppressing them.

I told my wife a while ago that my meditation retreat should have been tax deductible because I brought quite a bit of experience and reasonable skills etc. .

If you start arguing with what happens next, you’re already right behind. And the goal is to deal with it.

Dr. Peter Jüni considered withdrawing from pandemic control measures in Ontario

The director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table said the province is going through a serious crisis due to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:17

I can imagine it can be quite difficult to stay calm and move on when decisions are made provincially or federally that you disagree with.

We all make mistakes, each of us. Things are never as simple as they might seem when you just look at things from the outside.

There was this phrase to “follow the science”. I never liked it because I think if policymakers just followed the science, it just wouldn’t work that way. I think it’s great that they took the science into account, but I still think they have a different role than we have as scientists. They have to take science into account.

The UK has absolutely outstanding scientists. Obviously I’m biased, I’m moving there now, but it still hasn’t worked out with the Conservative government. When I look at the performance of our government, despite all the pitfalls, and compare it with the performance it [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson’s government had regarding the pandemic, I mean, it’s very clear that we’ve performed considerably better.

In your opinion, what impact did the scientific table play in this?

It’s very difficult for me to say. I think we probably played a pretty big role in that. It was just about reporting honestly on what’s going on and reporting equally to departments, cabinet and the public. I think that was the part that was really important. Even though it was bumpy, we kept doing it.

When I was just a clinician still working with patients, if you have a difficult message, you have to deliver it. I think there’s only one way it really works, and that’s to be gentle, but honest.

When Jüni announced his departure in March, he received well wishes from colleagues, friends, members of the public, people on the street. “I was a bit speechless, which is hard for me to believe.” (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If I’m not honest with the person I’m talking to, I don’t give that person the opportunity to react accordingly. I’m starting to be manipulative by not being honest.

[Around the Alpha variant], I sat at the family table thinking that some people were a little mad at me. And then my youngest daughter, who was nine at the time, said, ‘Why would they be angry?’ I do not know. Probably because I was honest. And his response was, ‘What’s wrong with being honest?’

It changes the nature of relationships if you commit to it, even if it is difficult. And that’s how I try to live my relationships in private, including with my children and my wife.