'Safe zones' urged as abuse of doctors ramps up with child vaccinations

"What we're wanting to see is that any behaviour that is harassing or violent in its nature ... is illegal," the CMA president said

Antonella Artuso 3 minute read November 24, 2021

Canada’s doctors have faced rampant harassment and intimidation that’s now increasing in intensity as they begin vaccinating children against COVID-19, according to their professional associations and pandemic front-line physicians.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and Canadian Medical Association (CMA) are calling for “safe zones” legislation that would set a perimeter around hospitals, medical clinics and similar facilities to protect doctors, health-care staff and patients from aggressive protesters.

CMA president Dr. Katherine Smart said they support the right to peaceful protest but the existing provisions in the Criminal Code against threatening behaviour are not sufficient to prevent abuse.

“What we’re wanting to see is that any behaviour that is harassing or violent in its nature … is illegal,” Smart said. ‘We’ve been seeing people blocking access to hospitals, we’ve been seeing protesters threatening patients, often very vulnerable patients who have significant medical issues, screaming at them, yelling at them, spitting at them as they enter or try to leave the hospital, and staff being physically harassed as they come and go from work.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has resisted efforts by health groups and opposition parties to create “safe zones” around hospitals, arguing members of the public have a right to peaceful protest as long as they don’t block individuals entering the facilities.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a pediatrician and president of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies, said the harassment comes from a vocal minority but the intimidation is impacting staff.

“We’re vaccinating children and for some reason that has sparked increased rage among anti-vaxxers which is unfortunate,” said Roumeliotis, Eastern Ontario medical officer of health. “So what we do need, really, is for people to understand the stress and burnout that’s being experienced by all of our staff in public health across Ontario and across Canada and throughout our acute care, primary care practitioners, anybody involved with health care.”

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During a media conference Wednesday, OMA president Dr. Adam Kassam described numerous incidences where doctors were called names or found hostile notes on their vehicles, and were subjected to sexist, racist and anti-Semitic hate messages.

“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. “There have been times when people lashed out because vaccinations were rolling out slowly and they were unhappy with their place in line.

“Public health officials reported a torrent of hatred in their email in-boxes every single day and in some cases abusive letters turned to death threats and security was called in to keep these doctors safe..”

Physicians across the country have encountered anger when refusing to provide vaccine exemptions or validate sick leave workplace claims, and even when attempting to treat patients in hospital who refused to believe they had COVID-19, Smart said.

Police have been called in several times, including when protesters invaded one clinic and threatened to jail all the staff, the media conference heard.

Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a Burlington family physician who has been prominent on social media discussing public health issues, said most people have been appreciative and supportive but she has been bombarded with hateful messages from others for positions such as advocating the wearing of masks during a respiratory pandemic.

“For examples, messages saying women should not be listened to or accusations of working for some foreign government or for spreading propaganda,” Kwan said. “There are also threats about going to jail or facing criminal charges or going on trial just for speaking about public health recommendations.”