More than a year after pots and pans were clattering to honour Canadian health-care workers amid the fight against COVID-19, throngs of anti-vaxxers are now protesting vaccine passports at their workplaces.
As a result, the demonstrations have led to patients wading through crowds of anti-vaxxers, and at times provided a challenge for paramedics to find safe passage to transport them.
“As a front-line emergency physician practising in three hospitals, this is frankly disgusting,” said Dr. Raghu Venugopal, a Toronto emergency physician.
The protests have occurred across the country, and have been expected to take place throughout Monday afternoon with hospitals in 10 provinces listed as potential protest sites.
For Venugopal, the demonstrations are a disturbing trend.
“To see people outside the hospital gates protesting, harassing and intimidating staff is a morale blow, it is reprehensible and frankly, our political leaders in Toronto and Ontario and Canada have not done enough to stop this,” he told Global News.
“It is a defilement of the place where people receive medical care.”
The most recent protests are being organized by a group called Canadian Frontline Nurses in an effort to stand up to the “tyrannical measures and government overreach” of the most recent public health measures.
The most controversial aspect of the new measures is a vaccine passport, which some provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, are set to introduce, while others have a version already in operation.
The protests are having an increasingly adverse effect on nurses, according to Venugopal. He said it’s taking a mental toll on his colleagues, many of whom are already overwhelmed 19 months into the pandemic.
“I have seen experienced nurses in tears in the emergency department because they have no idea how they are going to take care of the human souls with the nurses that they have on duty,” he said.
“We are reducing our nurses to tears.”
Venugopal’s concern echoes what Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, has been hearing for the past few weeks. Silas said she’s frustrated by people who were once wearing a pair of scrubs turn them in to hold a picket sign in these protests.
“It pisses me off … they are going against every science, every occupational health and safety measure we’ve been trying to push for the last 18 months,” she said.
Over the past few weeks, Silas said she’s received notes from nurses who are fearful of working at the hospital or walking through the protests to get into the building itself.
While nurses’ unions have been overwhelmingly supportive of vaccine mandates for their employees, Silas thinks health-care workers have become targets of the mob for their overwhelming support of the science behind lockdowns and vaccines.
“These people, they’re not accountable to anybody. It’s just a group that decided to feed on the frustration and the tiredness of health-care workers,” said Silas.
To some degree, Silas understands and respects the frustration behind the protests, but said those who are on the picket lines could be using their voices to reach policymakers instead.
“People have a right to get angry, the health-care system is a total disaster…. We need to be one voice to get the government to fix this,” she said.
Dr. Amit Arya, a Toronto palliative care physician and health-care advocate, told Global News the protests are distracting health-care workers from administering care.
“Unfortunately, I feel that this very vocal group of anti-vaxxers who are showing up to protest outside hospitals is taking away from what we should be doing at this time, which is actually focusing on still getting our vaccination rates up,” he said.
“So we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball here in the midst of the fourth wave where modellers have even predicted that by October, our ICU capacity could be nearing what it was during the third wave, which was a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Despite this, Arya adds that health-care workers know the majority of Canadians support them.
“The danger behind these protests is that we sort of think that all people who are unvaccinated are these violent anti-vaxxers showing up outside hospitals when that’s absolutely not the case,” he said.
“There are many people … who are struggling to get an appointment and are literally falling through the cracks. We’ve got to do whatever we can to counter this misinformation that’s circulating out there.”
Protests condemned by authorities
Condemnation for the protests has poured in across the country.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has previously called anti-lockdown protesters “yahoos,” was critical of those planning to protest at hospitals. Ford called them “selfish, cowardly and reckless” in a tweet on Sunday.
Ford’s comments have been echoed by Toronto Mayor John Tory, who said he supports police action against protesters. A statement issued to Global News by the University Health Network, where some of the protests were planned, said they hope to see some semblance of police intervention to protect health-care workers.
“We expect that Toronto Police Services will do everything in their power to ensure safe access for patients and staff during the protest,” the statement wrote.
Nova Scotia’s nurses’ union has also joined the growing criticism and disapproval.
“This group has drawn in anti-science, anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-public health followers whose beliefs align with theirs,” the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union (NSNU) said in a statement.
“Throughout the pandemic, NSNU has stood on the side of science. We have advocated for evidence-based public health measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, masking and vaccination.”
Earlier this month in British Columbia, Premier John Horgan said protesters demonstrating outside hospitals weren’t welcome.
“Health-care workers have been true heroes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working long hours in difficult conditions to care for us, our loved ones and to keep our communities safe,” he said in the statement.
“While everyone has the right to peaceful protest, the targeting and harassment of health-care workers at health-care facilities today.”
Horgan’s neighbour, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wrote in a statement that while protestors are within their limits, he questions the “appalling judgement of those protesting across the country today.”
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s comments were in line with Tory’s, saying he would amend the Criminal Code to discourage protesting near a hospital.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has been the target of anti-vax mobs, said his government would make it a criminal offence for protestors to obstruct or limit someone from seeking healthcare services at hospitals, abortion clinics, pharmacies or vaccine clinics.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole reiterated Singh’s message Monday by calling the protests “totally unacceptable.”
“These protests, this harassment of our front-line nurses and doctors is completely unacceptable,” said O’Toole. “We all owe a huge debt of thanks to our front lines…. I appreciate and respect them, so this type of harassment and protests in front of hospitals is completely unacceptable.”
Venugopal said the protesters do not “speak for the majority of Canadians,” pointing to vaccine rates.
“The vast minority of people, who are a radical fringe, are outside our hospitals today across this country,” he said. “I do not feel they reflect the people that I see in the emergency room on a day-to-day basis, who are grateful, who are polite … these are two entirely different populations.”
While political leaders have condemned the protests, that is not enough for Venugopal, who says authority figures have fallen short of their responsibility to health-care workers.
“I think the message Canadians need (is) it must be that we have to protect these institutions and our political leaders have failed us and are failing us today,” he said.
“We must enact by law municipal, provincial and federal law to protect these institutions.”