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Antisemitism, racism, misogyny, unfounded character assassinations and disturbing threats of physical violence and even death.
Those are just some of the daily hate-filled messages sent to Canadian front-line health-care workers, public health advocates, academics and experts speaking out on the benefit of COVID-19 vaccines and against misinformation.
One health-care worker told CBC News under condition of anonymity that they received a suspicious package at their place of work that led to an evacuation.
Another discussed the debilitating mental health issues they developed as a direct result of the volume and intensity of personal attacks and the dozens of baseless professional complaints made against them.
When protesters stormed Canadian hospitals this summer to berate health-care workers and oppose vaccine mandates and other public health restrictions, widespread condemnation from politicians and the public was swift.
But a disturbing rise in aggressive online harassment of health-care workers across Canada has been largely met with inaction, prompting calls for governments, regulators and social media companies to do more to protect those on the front lines.
“We often like to think that we’re not like our neighbours to the south,” said Dr. Naheed Dosani, a physician and health-justice advocate in Toronto. “But this pandemic has shown that there’s a lot of hate in this country.”
Online attacks ‘take their toll’
Those who choose to speak up in the media, online or in public forums say they are being specifically targeted by anti-vaxxers and other online attackers in order to threaten, intimidate and ultimately silence them.
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family physician in Ottawa, wrote in the Globe and Mail this week about how she received an antisemitic death threat through a formal complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario — showing the brazenness of the attackers.
“It’s a death threat — and if we don’t talk about it, then it becomes this hidden thing that I have to deal with myself,” she said. “I am not the problem because I’m speaking out. The problem is that somebody out there thinks that it is something that they can get away with.”
Kaplan-Myrth says she and her colleagues feel “under attack” and unprotected, even though they’ve worked hard to protect those in the community they serve by promoting public health guidance and administering COVID-19 vaccines.
“I work a 12-hour day, and then at the end of the day I have to wait for my husband to come pick me up,” she said. “Because it’s no longer safe for me to walk home on my own.”
Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, says he’s faced credible death threats investigated by the police, constant antisemitism and orchestrated attacks on social media and online.
“Those things take their toll and can make it harder to provide care the way that we want to because our minds are under so much tension and pressure,” he said.
“We are the people who provide care for people when they’re at their sickest, when they’re at their most vulnerable, and we need to have something in the tank to be able to provide that care in a safe and effective way…. You have to care for the caregiver.”
Warner says that outside of the hospital, outspoken health-care workers and experts who vocally advocate for public health and vaccinations in the media and online face “constant” attacks about the way they look, their ethnic background and their religion.
“Imagine having an emboldened mob of people yelling and screaming at you every day, constantly, when from your perspective you’re really just trying to do good. You’re actually trying to provide the advice that is going to protect people from dying,” he said.
“It does weigh heavily on me, I look over my shoulder all the time. I’m pretty nervous to take my mask off in public when I’m outside on the street for fear that someone might recognize me who wants to do me harm.”
‘Someone’s going to get hurt’
Those directly affected by the online abuse feel more must be done by different levels of government, law enforcement agencies, regulatory bodies or directly from social media companies to put a stop to the relentless attacks they face online before they get worse.
“The attacks are widespread and they’re escalating,” said Dr. Mary Fernando, a family physician in Ottawa.
“We know that threats can turn into violence, and there has to be a way to stop them from feeling they can do it with impunity — someone’s going to get hurt.”
Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal inquiry into Canada’s national response to the 2003 SARS epidemic and now co-chairs the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force, says the attacks go far beyond heated exchanges or criticism of expert policy advice.
“What’s happening instead is that a health professional or advocate takes a public position supporting vaccines or other public health measures and ends up subjected to crass personal attacks and abuse by the lunatic fringe,” he said.
“It’s targeted, vicious and sometimes laced with bigotry. The social media platforms need to police this phenomenon more aggressively, and any explicit threats should be traced to their sources and the perpetrators prosecuted.”
Toronto physician Dosani says policy decisions by provincial governments — such as lifting mask mandates, not mandating vaccines for health-care workers and setting a date on the end of vaccine passports — have fuelled online hate.
“When our governments make policy choices that don’t stand with the science and health workers, they leave us vulnerable with no cover, with targets on our backs,” he said.
“It’s like the Wild, Wild West out here — we are on our own. And it’s an honour to serve and to advocate for the health of Canadians, but it should not come at the cost of our mental health and our safety.”
National network proposed to track online hate
Ottawa physician Kaplan-Myrth says online threats need to be taken much more seriously by law enforcement, and the federal government should create new legislation, given that the threats fall under the Criminal Code.
But she says provinces also need to step up to ensure additional layers of protection — like they did with protesters outside hospitals.
“I’m asking for the help of anybody who can ensure that the people who are threatening us are charged and that we are kept safe, and that the public message is: Stay away from our doctors and nurses who are doing the work that we asked them to do,” she said.
“Protect us, step up and say that our well-being matters, because even in the face of all of this, even while the death threats are coming in, I’m still going to keep immunizing patients.”
Fernando says concrete solutions need to come from a national legal perspective, because the physician and surgeon colleges and other regulatory bodies can only do so much.
“What can the college do? The college is largely there to ensure that the public is protected. That is their job,” she said. “I do believe I’m coming to the point of believing that we need laws. We need something that protects us.”
The Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Medical Association released a joint statement in the summer saying the harassment of health-care workers who have “worked tirelessly for months on end” is “wrong and unacceptable.” A spokesperson for the CMA said the group will have more to say on the issue in the coming weeks.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says the creation of a national network to report and track online hate could also go a long way in deterring bad actors.
“I really think that that could make a difference for some of these people,” she said. “Because just knowing that they’re being watched would take away that sense of invulnerability that keyboard warriors apparently have.”
Sabina Vohra-Miller, a pharmacologist and science communicator who co-founded Unambiguous Science and the South Asian Health Network, says she has received increasingly “violent” messages because of her volunteer public health advocacy.
“We need to be talking about this so that something can be done,” she said, adding that friends and family encouraged her to speak out about a death threat she recently received.
“Because it’s really escalating, and many of us are concerned about the information that is in the public about us — in terms of where we live, where we work, what we do, information on our families, our children — and so it ends up being quite worrisome.”
Vohra-Miller says the biggest fear she has is that someone will actually act on the threats against her, which have at times made her wonder whether the advocacy work she’s doing is worth continuing, given that it comes at such a “high personal cost.”
“All of the work that we do is basically unpaid volunteer work, and so is it still worth it if you’re putting your life at risk? Or you’re putting your family’s lives at risk?” she said.
“It makes you stop and wonder whether any of this is worth it.”