Canadian Medical Association urges federal government to protect health-care workers

·3 min read

OTTAWA — The Canadian Medical Association is asking the federal government to fulfil its promise to support health-care employees amid continuing online harassment of physicians and other workers.

The medical association is also calling on social media companies to address harassment and threats made on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Online harassment against health-care workers has not only increased but also escalated in severity over recent weeks and months, said association president Dr. Katharine Smart.

The trend has emerged in parallel with the creation of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and the coming vaccine rollout for children, she added.

Smart said she would like social media companies to recognize they play a part in improving the safety of the platforms where such harassment takes place.

"It's clear that the processes that are already in place — the terms and conditions and reporting mechanisms — are not enough," said Smart. "They're not flagging these violent things that health-care professionals are experiencing. They're also not flagging the racism and the misogyny in these comments."

Cam Gordon, head of communications for Twitter Canada, said in a statement that "harassment and hateful conduct have no place" on their platform.

"We recognize the concerns health practitioners have regarding social media, and we are committed to creating healthy experiences on Twitter," said Gordon.

YouTube spokesperson Lauren Skelly said in a statement that the platform has "clear policies" on harassment and hate, and removes videos in violation of those policies.

Kevin Chan, global director and head of public policy for Meta Canada, formerly known as Facebook Canada, said in a statement that the platform is "constantly working" to create policies and improve their ability to enforce them, while providing users with tools to report abuse.

Both Skelly and Chan expressed that they look forward to meeting with the association to discuss how to keep Canadian health-care workers safe.

LinkedIn and TikTok could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

The medical association has contacted social media outlets and will be meeting with representatives next week to discuss how online spaces can be made safer, Smart said.

"This type of behaviour emboldens people, and that leads to actual physical harm of people," she said. "And we've seen already health-care professionals that have been physically harmed, spit on, hit, accosted, and we can't have that type of increasing violence."

She also said the intimidation contributes to the already high levels of stress and burnout among health professionals, and could prompt workers to leave the field "at levels we've not seen before."

During the federal election campaign, the Liberals pledged to introduce new criminal sanctions for those who intimidate or harass health-care workers, as well as for anyone blocking access to vaccine clinics, hospitals, testing centres and abortion clinics.

The promises came as protesters gathered outside hospitals in opposition to proof-of-vaccination requirements and other public health measures.

Justice Minister David Lametti said in a statement that there is "absolutely no place for intimidation or threats" to Canadian health-care workers or those seeking health services.

Lametti said the federal government is considering "all options" to make their promises a reality "as soon as possible."

The association says that along with legislation and "responsible management" of social media platforms, the public's help is also needed to ensure the safety of health-care workers.

Smart said this means encouraging the public to hold social media companies accountable. "By joining in with us and calling for this action, they can show their support for health-care workers, and help us create a space that we can all benefit from," said Smart.

"We want to be clear that this vicious cycle of online violence can't become the legacy of this pandemic," she added.

"We can't let these new norms that are harmful to physicians, health-care workers, scientists and other people, including journalists that are speaking out to educate people, become acceptable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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