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Kaplan-Myrth: Health-care workers have your backs. Please protect us too


We will continue to provide quality care, whether you have followed our medical advice or not. We will not, however, tolerate any hate directed at us or at any marginalized community.

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Those of us who have been the recipients of harassment and intimidation over the last two years — who have experienced the overlap between antivax/antimask rhetoric and anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and misogyny — were overcome by a sense of foreboding as trucks rolled into downtown Ottawa more than a week ago. These events, now spreading to the rest of Canada, are a warning to us all.

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By now everyone has seen the photos of Nazi and confederate flags on the backs of trucks. Residents of downtown Ottawa are powerless against trucks honking their horns all night, diesel fumes wafting into their windows. Food was taken from the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter. Women survivors of violence, traumatized, cried out for help, unable to safely walk outside the Cornerstone shelter. An employee at a local business was physically assaulted. LGBTQ community members were confronted with transphobic placards; a shop window with a rainbow flag was broken. In a virtual townhall meeting led by Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden, the chat was disrupted at one point because of anti-Black, racist comments.

The mayor has declared that downtown Ottawa is “under siege,” in a state of “emergency.” As the hate spreads across the country, health-care workers in Toronto and Vancouver were warned not to dress in scrubs in the streets, to avoid being a target for hate. In response, Dr. Lisa Salamon-Switzman, an emergency room physician in Toronto, posted on Twitter that she would wear her scrubs, that as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she would not cower from those espousing hate.

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I am also a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and I received an anti-semitic death threat last year, targeted because I have immunized more than 12,000 people in Ottawa. Salamon-Switzman’s words struck a chord with me. Unable or unwilling to move the convoy out of downtown Ottawa, the mayor and police have warned citizens not to counter-protest, not to do anything to provoke violence from the people who have taken over our streets with hate. Contrast that reaction to Toronto, where hundreds of community members gathered outside Queen’s Park on Feb. 5, in solidarity with health-care workers.

Although we cannot all safely take to the streets, we can all speak out. I wrote an open letter, on behalf of physicians, nurses, health-care workers, and public health scholars across the country , to assert that we will NOT hide out of fear of violence from hate-fuelled convoys. That letter has been signed by the president and president-elect and past-president of the Canadian Medical Association, by the president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, by the chief of staff of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and by the medical officer of health for Peterborough, as well as by many prominent healthcare providers and advocates across Canada. So far, we have more than 1,700 signatures.

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Our message to Canadians is simple: We will not allow disinformation to undermine science, nor will we allow hate to undermine health-care policy or services or to besiege our streets.

We will not allow disinformation to undermine science, nor will we allow hate to undermine health-care policy or services or to besiege our streets.

Some of us have grandparents who fled Nazis during the Second World War. Some of us have families who are refugees or migrants to Canada from other wars and violations of human rights. Some of us are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Baptist, Protestant, Catholic, atheist. Some of us identify as transgender, some as non-binary. Some of us are lesbian, gay, bisexual. Some of us are disabled. Some of us are Black, Asian, First Nations, Metis, Inuit.

All of us believe strongly in social justice, equality, respect, and caring for one another in a community.

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We cannot and will not allow racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or any other form of hate or discrimination towards any person facing oppression in Canada, to stop us from doing our work. We will not cower. We will not hide.

We will run our vaccine clinics, without fear, knowing that legislation in Canada prevents harassment or intimidation of health-care workers or patients seeking care. We will go to our hospitals. We will keep providing health care. The recent amendment to the Criminal Code, with Bill C-3, must be enforced to support health-care workers and protect patients.

We will continue to provide quality care to each of you, whether you have followed our medical advice or not, because that is our commitment to you as health-care workers. We will not, however, tolerate any hate directed at us or at any marginalized community. Please treat us with the same respect and compassion that we offer to you.

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We are exhausted, just as you are. We want the pandemic to be over, just as you do. We want our children to be in school, businesses to be open, for life not to be dictated by a virus that is threatening the world. We are doing everything we can to take care of you, to use all the tools that we have — vaccines, better masks, better ventilation in schools, curbing our activities — to get there. But there are still many people in Canada who are vulnerable. They deserve protection. Infants, young children, disabled people, elderly or immunocompromised people, people who work in high-risk jobs. We will not abandon them. Globally, also, we have a responsibility to ensure that safety is not a privilege, but a right for every person. This includes urgently improving access to vaccines globally.

We appeal to the prime minister, to each of our premiers, to the mayors of all cities, to elected provincial and federal officials, to all community leaders, to all business owners and heads of organizations — and to all Canadians — to have our backs. This isn’t about partisan politics. It is about ensuring that we are safe while we care for you. That is all we ask.

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, MD, CCFP, PhD, is a family physician in Ottawa who writes about health policy and politics.

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