Question: What do a love of friends, music and karaoke, making tough decisions in a pandemic, and hopes of writing contemporary fiction have in common?
Answer: Peel Region’s medical officer of health, Lawrence Loh.
While Loh may be best known for having recommended “some of the strictest COVID-19 measures in Ontario,” there’s more to him than that – he’s also a musician, aspiring author and role model for two young daughters.
Born and initially raised in London, Ont., Loh spent his high school years in his parents’ country of origin, Malaysia. During that time, the emergence of the Nipah virus in that country resulted in 265 cases of acute encephalitis and over 100 deaths. Seeing the outbreak unfold first-hand fostered his interest in medicine and eventually to public health and preventive medicine as a specialty.
While his initial career goals were focused on global health work abroad, he eventually landed in local public health. Peel was the one health unit he’d always wanted to work in, having been supervised as a senior resident there by Eileen de Villa. After he had worked at all three levels of government in two provinces post-residency, she hired him back at Peel as an associate medical officer of health in 2016.
When de Villa left Peel for Toronto in 2017, Loh assumed the interim role for seven months before being replaced by Jessica Hopkins. Under her, he developed a track record through working and teaching on environmental health, health equity, vaccines and Peel’s digital strategy. Then, in February 2020, as the pandemic brewed, Hopkins surprised Loh with an announcement – she was leaving Peel for another agency.
Loh’s first day on the job was March 14, 2020.
“I literally assumed the position three days before the first closures of the first wave in Ontario, and it’s been quite the whirlwind ever since,” he says.
Peel Region would later be hit hard by COVID-19, which Loh attributes to the “significant disparities” that exist in the community. A large, diverse and quickly growing population, longstanding investment shortfalls in social and health services combined with employment that couldn’t be done from home left Peel’s residents vulnerable, he says.
Loh credits his team at Peel Public Health for working tirelessly through each wave, recommending measures based on data, tracing contacts and investigating outbreaks and then rolling out vaccinations. He notes that his team also advocated for the Peel community, trying to shift the community’s context and save lives.
“During the vaccine rollout, we pushed for the hotspot designation to be applied to our entire region so we could access vaccines sooner and protect our residents,” he says. “With our focus on equity and disparity, our data portended the unique challenges we would face compared to other jurisdictions in Ontario.”
Peel’s context often required Loh to make difficult recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19, including bans on weddings, closures of high-risk establishments and workplaces, and moving schools where precautions were at risk of no longer holding online.
Loh is convinced that Peel could have been hit even harder if it weren’t for his team’s sacrifices and the work of many community agencies and partners.
“Peel is an amazing community and I’ve always wanted to work here,” he says. “When I worked as a family doctor in Brampton, I saw how resilient and caring this community is. This pandemic really gave light to that, despite how difficult it was; everyone pitched in.”
Loh’s first day on the job was “three days before the first closures of the first wave in Ontario, and it’s been quite the whirlwind ever since.”
Loh has also had to learn to balance work and home life during the pandemic, like many parents. His wife, a family doctor, continued to see patients in person throughout the pandemic and then did double duty for months through the mass vaccination effort. The pair credits their nanny for helping them make it through, and both are keen to make up for lost time with their two young daughters, aged 7 and 4.
“My kids have been one of the things that have gotten me through this pandemic,” says Loh. “Working remotely has been a blessing in disguise at times; it gives me a few more moments with my little ones, no matter how busy the day is.”
He details a simple note he received from one of his daughters. In it, she writes that she loves her daddy and asks if they can play when he’s “not working so hard.”
Not surprisingly, Loh’s daughters figure heavily in his hobbies. An aspiring writer, he has drafted two manuscripts for different contemporary fiction novels that he hopes to publish. One manuscript features a strong female Asian-American protagonist that he crafted as a role model for his daughters.
His love of music is also evident in his commitment to spend some free time singing and playing piano and guitar with his girls. He sighs wistfully, though, as he laments the loss of karaoke in a pandemic driven by a respiratory virus.
“Of the many things the pandemic has taken, that’s been the hardest,” he says with a laugh.
As the pandemic draws closer to the end, though, Loh remains hopeful that days and nights filled with friends and song will soon return – in their full glory.
This profile was published as part of the Pillars of the Pandemic series – brought to you by the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Closing the Gap Healthcare. We will release new profiles in the coming weeks, with 13 people being honoured in total.