Both the Canadian and Ontario medical associations believe that intentional bullying directed at physicians and health-care workers is a crime and should be actively prosecuted.
Ontario Medical Association president Dr. Adam Kassam hosted an online news conference Wednesday that focused on what he referred to as "a torrent of hatred" being directed at medical professionals by individuals who believe the COVID-19 pandemic is not real and that vaccine mandates and masking are an attack on their personal freedoms.
"Sadly, too many physicians and others working in health care have been subjected to bullying attacks and threats of violence simply for doing our jobs,” he said. “I want to stress that this is coming from a very small number of people, but that doesn't really lessen the impact that we're all experiencing."
Kassam said the campaign of misinformation and dissent is not only a problem in Ontario but one that has escalated throughout Canada, the United States, Britain, and Europe.
"And we've joined with doctors across Canada in calling for the bullying attacks and violence against health workers to stop,” said Kassam. “The Canadian Medical Association is calling for safe zones around hospitals and other health-care settings where patients seek the care that they need.”
One of the speakers at the online event was Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). She said the CMA is aware that pandemic dissent has become a pan-Canadian issue.
"I don't think there's any part of Canada, any province or territory, where physicians are not experiencing this level of harassment, bullying and violence," said Smart, who works as a pediatrician in Whitehorse, Yukon.
"It's happening in people's private clinics as patients become frustrated when they aren't able to seek exemption letters for the vaccine or claim sick leave as an attempt to avoid the vaccine mandate," she added.
“And physicians are bearing the brunt of that as people become very frustrated and angry with them than in hospitals. We're seeing protests outside hospitals, where physicians and patients are being harassed and then violent behavior inside hospitals as people very sick, often with COVID, are refusing to believe that's what's going on and lashing out against the health-care providers trying to help them," Smart continued.
She said another concern is that many Canadian physicians will speak out publicly against the rumours and misinformation that is perpetuated online and at organized rallies. Smart said the problem is that physicians who speak up become targeted for abuse.
"I think it's been clear throughout this pandemic, that physicians have been leaders in advocacy to the public in terms of combating misinformation, which has proven itself to be a formidable foe in the fight against COVID 19. Many physician leaders and clinicians have taken to social media to educate the public and help combat that misinformation. Many of those physicians are now being targeted with online hate and threats multiple times a day," said Smart.
She said in a lot of cases the online harassment has escalated to in-person threats and that has left many professionals feeling unsafe for themselves and their co-workers.
"We're asking for the federal government to make good on their promise to enact legislation to specifically protect health-care workers from violence and harassment, both in person and online. We've also reached out to social media platforms to let them know we do not feel those platforms right now are adequate from a safety perspective, in terms of ensuring that this type of violence isn't propagated," said Smart.
She added that the CMA has had a response from some social media platforms and will be meeting soon to find a solution to hate messages.
"We believe strongly this type of hatred cannot be the legacy of this pandemic," said Smart.
Dr. Jennifer Kwan, an Ontario physician who is active on social media, said she has endured many hate messages because of her activism.
"Unfortunately, I have also faced many hateful, sexist and racist remarks. For example, messages saying that women should not be listened to, or accusations of working for some foreign government, or for spreading propaganda."
Kwan said threats and hate messages were directed toward her and others at her clinic. She said her group was forced to take steps to protect their safety and their privacy. She added that most of the abuse was online because of her messages on social media. Kwan added that some of the abuse was in person at her clinic in Burlington, Ont.
"There was also, unfortunately, some racist comments like saying that I look the same as all the other Asian health-care workers, or things like that. So it was kind of awful. But you know, I feel that with my patients that I see on a regular basis, in person, generally, people are very, very respectful."
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, president of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies (ALPHA) in Ontario, said he takes comfort in the fact there is "overwhelming and resounding support" from the public, as evidenced by the vaccine numbers.
He said the dissenters are behaving in an "abhorrent and unacceptable manner." Roumeliotis, who is also the medical officer of health and the chief executive officer of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, said that public health doctors have been more of a target for abuse because they've been in the spotlight enforcing public health measures.
"But I can also tell you that the threats, intimidation, and protests and so on are affecting all of our public health staff," he said.
Roumeliotis said the province has asked all Ontario health units to ensure that safety measures are in place this week for children and their families who will be attending vaccination clinics.
He said the latest vaccination strategies have produced "rage" among some dissenters.
"We've got our third dose strategy coming up. We're vaccinating children. And for some reason that has sparked increased rage among anti-vaxxers, which is unfortunate," said Roumeliotis.
He said dissenters are a clear minority, but they are deliberately causing intimidation, causing fear and adding the heightened level of stress for the pandemic.
Despite that, Roumeliotis said public health in Ontario will carry on.
"And you know what, we're going to keep going. Nothing will stop us. We need to get this job done. And I think people understand that and mechanisms are in place to be able to protect our staff, the more the better," he said.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in northern Ontario.