Health workers say they are exhausted and demoralized by the threat of ‘hateful’ protests
How did we get here? This is what Dr. Naheed Dosani wondered.
Not so long ago, he and other healthcare workers were cheered on from porches every night, celebrated as heroes for their work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, nearly two years later, as a protest against vaccination mandates is set to unfold in Toronto, hospital officials are telling them it might not be a good idea to wear their scrubs in public for fear that they will be the target of abuse.
“How did we get to a place where a health worker has to fear for their safety just when they go to work?” asked Dosani, a palliative care physician.
As the so-called “Freedom Convoy” arrives in Toronto on Saturday, and with it the threat of harassment or assault on healthcare workers — especially those working in the cluster of hospitals near Queen’s Park — Dosani and other doctors interviewed by the Star said they are exhausted, frustrated and demoralized by those who will disrupt the city this weekend.
“I know the vast majority of Canadians are united with healthcare workers, but this small minority is a very vocal minority and they can be very hateful,” Dosani said. “The hatred that is being incited at the moment against health workers by this small minority is impacting our whole psyche, it is causing significant distress and it is traumatizing us health workers who have already seen so much trauma throughout the pandemic.”
Convoy protesters are feared to harass or interfere with patients or hospital staff after such incidents were reported in Ottawa this week.
Toronto police preemptively closed roads around several downtown hospitals on Friday to protect the row of hospitals.
University Health Network, Women’s College, Mount Sinai and Sick Kids Hospitals said they were working together, with police, to plan protests and ensure staff and patients can safely access hospitals. Security has been tightened in some areas, patients have been told to expect delays and some hospitals have postponed non-emergency appointments.
A UHN spokesperson said the protest has “meant a lot of planning and time for people within the organization, which is challenging on top of everything that’s happened during the pandemic.” .
Dosani, meanwhile, is part of a group of healthcare providers staging a rally on Saturday as a counter-protest. In a statement, the group said it wants to uphold the rights of health care workers to report to work without harassment and ensure protesters in the convoy do not interfere with anyone trying to receive health care.
“Our singular message is that access to health care should never be compromised,” reads the group’s statement.
Dr. Raghu Venugopal, an emergency physician in Toronto, plans to attend the rally – in his gown.
“I will wear identification clothing because I am proud of the privilege of serving our community,” he said. “I’m not afraid of that fact. And I think we need to have a strong message to say, go out there and protest, but don’t block access.
Venugopal cited Bill C-3, which passed in December and made it a criminal offense to obstruct or intimidate a medical professional or person seeking health care. He said he hoped police would enforce the law on Saturday.
Other healthcare workers, like Dr. Lisa Richardson, simply feel overwhelmed by it all.
“That’s the word that comes to mind,” she said, “especially when we’ve worked so hard to care for people with COVID, whether they’re vaccinated or not.”
Richardson said the thought that his patients or their families might have difficulty getting into the hospital due to a move “that seems to have lost track of reality” was stressful and hard to fathom.
She added that healthcare workers just want to be allowed to do their jobs.
“We are not asking to be celebrated. We simply ask to be left alone and respected so that we can do our job. A nice step would be for people to understand the impact this has had on all of us who do this work, and on all the people who have chosen to leave the health professions because of stress and burnout – this would be great. But if we can’t have that, at least allow people to go to work with respect and dignity.
Dr Abdu Sharkawy, an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, said the protest is indicative of a broader societal shift fueled by right-wing populists that has created a movement of people who feel “embellished and entitled to abuse, threaten and recklessly exercise any prejudice in their hearts.
Dr Sharkawy, who has spoken publicly throughout the pandemic, said he received death threats, ‘odious’ voicemails and all manner of abuse on social media simply for providing health messages evidence-based public.
“A lot of this can be rationalized as the work and expression of a few finicky people, but when people are actually willing, inclined and able to hurt other people and be a visible threat, I think it’s is a defining moment of crisis. this simply cannot be dismissed.
The danger posed by protesters should not be minimized, he added.
“How is it acceptable that we have to hide? ” he said. “We’re told you shouldn’t wear gowns, you shouldn’t wear anything that can easily identify you as a healthcare provider? I mean, it’s historic in terms of the level of depravity this movement has reached, that in Canada in 2022 we have to be afraid of being a visible symbol of something that is unconditionally good.
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