Source: michael_swan/Flickr

Anti-vaccine protesters have become a sadly common fixture of the pandemic, but they hit a new low at the beginning of September, targeting hospitals and harassing health-care workers across Canada. 

The protests followed announcements from British Columbia Premier John Horgan and Ontario Premier Doug Ford about the implementation of vaccination passports in their respective provinces. 

The largest protest was at Vancouver General Hospital, where as many as 5,000 people gathered. In Victoria protesters hurled verbal abuse at health-care workers, and in one case physically assaulted them, as they came in for work. In Kelowna nurses were brought to tears. There were also reports that the protests disrupted access to the hospitals and slowed down ambulances.

The protests have further demoralized health-care workers already stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic. 

“You question your profession and if you should be in it,” said one nurse from Cornwall, Ontario. 

In Vancouver a veteran paramedic of 33 years was driven to the verge of quitting by the protests. “I watched someone start to bleed to death when they didn’t have to when time would have made all the difference in the world. That was my last straw.”

And a palliative care physician in Toronto said, “I think people are getting really aggressive about the vaccine issue and I’m scared. I’m scared for my family.” 

The angry mobs are adding more stress on top of already hellish conditions for health-care workers. Hailed as heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, these workers are treated as nothing more than workhorses, with an average of 10 hours of overtime a week and workloads as much as three times higher than normal. Nurses are in a constant state of burnout, resulting in severe staffing shortages.

“We’re probably at a tipping point, which is why these protests aren’t exactly welcome,” said Alan Drummond, chair of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians. “It’s just disheartening and demoralizing, frankly, to see these protests going on.”

The organizers of the protests are, surprisingly enough, themselves a pair of Ontario nurses—albeit conspiracy theorists who believe the pandemic is a “fraud.” Kristen Nagle, a neonatal ICU nurse from London, and Sarah Choujounian, a registered practical nurse from Toronto, are founders of Canadian Frontline Nurses (CFN), an offshoot of the American organization Global Frontline Nurses (GFN). Members of GFN, including Nagle and Choujounian, were among those who gathered in Washington D.C. on the day of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot. It’s a right-wing outfit tapping into the frustration and confusion of certain layers of society.

The hysterical character of these layers is illustrated by the Vancouver protest, where the majority white crowd carried signs comparing vaccination policies to slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. 

Nagle and Choujounian have long been involved in protests against public health measures during the pandemic, and have both been fired from their jobs as a result. They are also under investigation by the College of Nurses of Ontario for their activities, including travelling to the United States for a GFN event while public health directives were in place to avoid all non-essential travel. This has not stopped their organizing efforts, however, as they have another round of cross-country protests planned for Monday, Sept. 14.  

Politicians and national and provincial medical groups have denounced the protests targeting hospitals, but a lot more than strongly worded statements are needed to protect health-care workers directly under attack. 

The government is incapable of taking care of workers. They have created this problem. Decades of austerity meant that Canada’s health-care system was already on shaky ground before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In Alberta, for example, hospitals were already cut down to the bone, with lack of staffing and hospital bed shortages so acute that nurses could not believe there was anything left to cut. Soon after coming to power, Premier Jason Kenney passed Bill 9, allowing his government to unilaterally postpone wage arbitration with public-sector workers. 

In Ontario, health care was severely slashed by the Mike Harris government of the 1990s, and successive Liberal governments did nothing to remedy these cuts. One of the first things Doug Ford did when he was elected was to cut $1 billion from Toronto Public Health. He followed this up with Bill 124, which imposes a wage cap on all public-sector workers, including health-care workers, restricting annual pay increases to one per cent. This amounts to an annual pay cut, as it’s below the rate of inflation of three per cent. And while inflation is currently on the rise, wages are not. This is what set the stage for the abject crisis that health care is facing today, and created the horrific conditions that health-care workers find themselves in. 

Even with the pandemic well underway, governments have not stopped their attacks on health-care workers. Last October, Kenney moved to eliminate 11,000 health-care positions in Alberta through privatization. Then in July of this year, the government went so far as to propose a three per cent wage cut for nurses! While this proposal has since been withdrawn, Alberta nurses are still facing three years of below-inflation wage increases. Meanwhile in Ontario, the Ford government passed bills 195 and 197 in July 2020, which respectively suspend the collective bargaining agreements of health-care workers for two years and weaken workplace health and safety measures. The 2021 Ontario budget only allocates half the necessary funding to health care. 

These conditions have pushed health-care workers to take action, such as wildcat walkouts and strikes. Devastatingly, many more nurses are simply walking away from their jobs due to exhaustion. In August, two-thirds of the emergency nurses in one Kamloops hospital walked out, with most of them deciding to reduce their hours or just quit. With governments treating nurses and other health-care workers like they’re disposable, this is entirely unsurprising. If these governments cared about the well-being of nurses, the first thing they would do is pay them more. 

On top of this, the government’s bungled and contradictory response to the pandemic is what created an environment for conspiracy theorists to flourish. From early shortages of personal protective equipment, to botched vaccine rollouts, to successive lockdowns and reopenings which tell the public that it is safe to gather for school and work but not privately, there is more than enough fuel for the mistrust and frustration that feeds the reactionary anti-vax movement. 

Instead of turning to the same ruling class that has been attacking them for years, workers need to rely on their own forces, and on class-struggle methods to protect themselves. This raises the question: Where are the unions in all of this? When their members are under direct, physical threat, why is there no organized effort to defend them? This is not only about defending health-care workers themselves, but also protecting the conditions of health care that all workers depend on. 

At the federal level, campaigning party leaders are promising legislation to clamp down on anti-vax protests outside of hospitals. The entire discussion on how to respond to the mobs is dominated by proposals to criminalize them. That the unions are absent from the discussion is shameful and indicative of a lack of leadership.

It is a fundamental mistake to rely on the state to protect the workers. As mentioned above, the state cannot be trusted to have the interests of workers at heart. Moreover, it makes workers dependent on the same forces that are used against them when they go on strike. With the talk of implementing exclusion zones around hospitals, it is worth noting that Alberta has already essentially done this: Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, penalizes anyone who blocks, damages, or enters without reason “essential infrastructure”. The bill was introduced in 2020 after a railway blockade in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders. It has yet to be used to defend hospitals against anti-vaxxers.   

By relying on its own numbers and organization to defend against far-right movements like the anti-vaxxers, the working class can strengthen the solidarity and resolve of its members, and demonstrate that it is they, not the far-right, who are the majority in society. The anti-vax movement is tremendously unpopular and angers most working people. With a small bit of leadership, the trade unions could mobilize thousands of their members from within the health sector, thousands more from across the labour movement, and more still from the unorganized. 

With public opinion overwhelmingly on the side of health-care workers, such a show of solidarity can turn into a mass movement that won’t stop at simply turning away antivax mobs, but can go on to break the wage cap on public-sector workers; increase staffing and funding to health care; and demand shorter hours, more time off, and more sick days for health-care workers. That is to say, a movement that not only improves conditions for health-care workers, but improves the quality of health care for the entire working class.