690   Individual paper

Who are "we"? Negotiating public health authority and citizen responsibility in British Columbia's COVID-19 communication

Author: Philippa Spoel
Laurentian University, Canada

In British Columbia, Canada, public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s pandemic communication has been widely commended as key to that province’s relatively successful efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Tworek et al. (2020) praise Henry’s “pro-social” discourse for promoting individual citizen autonomy in making responsible decisions to support both personal and collective health. From our perspective, Henry’s numerous public briefings present a valuable site for investigating how COVID-19 communication is enacting news forms of behavioural health promotion and citizen responsibility for health. Through a rhetorical analysis, our presentation investigates how this communication negotiates the boundaries between public health authority-expertise and citizen engagement in making informed decisions and taking effective actions. We focus on the prominent, but complex and ambiguous, use of first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) to construct a rhetoric of identification (Burke 1969) between health experts and citizens. We trace the polysemous, shifting meanings of these pronouns by examining the kinds of people, knowledge, and actions with which they are associated. Our analysis shows how “we” primarily appears to refer to an inclusive sense of community in which both expert and non-expert citizens act together to curb the virus’ spread. However, “we” also refers to public health authorities whose expertise directs the decisions and actions that ‘good covid citizens’ are expected to perform and, when the appeal to voluntary good behaviour is ineffective, are the ones who issue orders that require—not simply encourage—specific behaviours. While the slippages in Henry’s use of first-person plural pronouns may be strategically ambiguous, they raise questions about the nature of the relationship between public health experts and citizens as well as what kinds of citizens are not included in the “pro-social” rhetoric that these public briefings enact.

Co-author: Naomi Lacelle
Laurentian University, Canada

Co-author: Alexandra Millar
Laurentian University, Canada

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