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Peter Jüni

Peter Jüni


Truthful doesn’t mean ruthless. Truthful means truthful. And you can do that in a very soft way.

If you do that all the time you never need to think about what you said anywhere. If I’m uncertain, I say I’m uncertain and if I’m nervous, then I say I’m nervous. Where I learned that is through the people I was closest to, with my wife Elena and my previous partner Monica who, unfortunately, after we separated died from cancer.

Waiting to hear if Monica’s cancer had metastasized. Being the next of kin to one of our four children who was resuscitated while I was abroad, experiencing them going unconscious and being resuscitated through the phone. It’s these situations that really made me change my approach to life and people completely.

Our child was still small at the time. After their resuscitation, they were admitted to the ICU and we didn’t know whether they had permanent brain damage. I took an airplane back and arrived in the ICU about 18 hours after the event. They were intubated and couldn’t talk. The moment I came in they opened their eyes for the first time, and looked at me. This was when I realized that they were still themselves, that they hadn’t suffered any brain damage, and that they were still our kid. I’m not a religious person, but for me, this was grace.

It’s moments like these that show you basically – I don’t even know how to describe it – that we all are completely immersed in the full vulnerability of life.

Yesterday, I went on a walk with our youngest boy. I saw him crossing the road on his own and I thought of my previous partner, Monica. We remained good friends after we separated. When our youngest boy was a baby, Monica was really very ill and was about to die. She met him for the first time over Skype and I remember her smiling and looking at him, saying, “What a wonderful boy.” Yesterday I missed Monica so much and realized how wonderful it would be if she saw him grow up now.

In the end, we are all just people. We all struggle, and we all are a mess sometimes and especially during a pandemic, that’s just what’s happening.

During Omicron, I was asked to go on CBC’s Cross Country Check-Up. The agreement was that we would also talk about what had happened in an earlier interview, and how what I had said during this interview had been misrepresented by the tabloid press. I was really nervous to go on CBC, so I talked to my wife Elena and her response was, “Just let go, be soft with it and honest and it will be fine.”

And it’s actually what happened. If I don’t want to mess things up, being vulnerable and honest is the only approach I can use. If I start to harden up or start to be aggressive because I’m full of myself then it is almost guaranteed that this will backfire.

So, what I tried to do consistently in the media during the pandemic is to let go and just describe what’s happening right now, what is obvious right now, without any agenda.

We really didn’t have a clue also as a family what we were getting ourselves into when I took on the role of Scientific Director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. Would I go back and want to undo the decision? Not at all.

During this entire thing I just felt like I was being thrown back to medical school because we were faced with evolution in real time, moving so rapidly. We had to learn so much in a very short time, which made it intellectually very challenging. It was an amazing experience. But I was out of my comfort zone so many times.

I’m tremendously proud of us as a population in this province, the sense of community and solidarity, and how people embraced the science. After my ‘dog and pony show’ during the second half of December 2021 because of Omicron, people actually changed their behaviour before the end of the year. And it was people’s behaviour change that broke the Omicron wave in early January 2022 before the effect of public health measures kicked in.

I will never forget that, never. I think people here haven’t forgotten that there’s reason to be grateful and there’s reason to help each other.

Dr. Peter Jüni is the Director of the Applied Health Research Centre at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute and was the Scientific Director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table from July 2020 to May 2022. In July, he will take on a new role at Oxford University and remain an Affiliate Scientist at Unity Health.

As told to Ana Gajic. Photos by Katie Cooper. This interview has been edited and condensed.