More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the sound of residents clanging pots and pans in gratitude for health-care workers has been replaced by a vocal minority demanding an end to public health measures designed to slow the spread of a virus that has killed more than 24,000 Canadians.
Lawn signs thanking “front-line heroes” jostle for space with placards demanding “no more lockdowns,” with protests — billed by organizers as “freedom rallies” — against face masks and business closures popping up around the province.
Several hundred people railed against the latest stay-at-home order in Simcoe earlier this month, with physical distancing largely ignored and nary a mask in sight.
The protest, organized by No More Lockdowns Canada, drew the ire of Norfolk resident Naomi Auld, who is currently training to be a paramedic.
“As someone going into health care, this makes me so angry,” Auld said.
“Health-care workers are putting their own health at risk every day, wearing full PPE to take care of those who are sick, and they are overwhelmed and exhausted.”
Protesters who minimize the threat posed by the virus “are so incredibly selfish, ignorant and childish, and are the reason we keep having to go into lockdown after lockdown,” Auld added.
On Thursday, Norfolk County OPP charged eight people for flouting lockdown restrictions at the Simcoe protest, with more charges possible as the investigation continues.
The charges come with a $750 fine.
Police did not disclose whether those charged were Norfolk residents or protesters from outside the area.
Health unit epidemiologist Dr. Kate Bishop-Williams said the protest in Simcoe and others like it are dangerous to public health.
“These protests — without masking, without proper distancing — pose a risk to the individuals themselves who are attending, as well as to the general public,” she said.
While gathering outside is less risky than getting together indoors, health experts say having people bunch together without masks increases the likelihood of spreading the virus.
“There’s just no way of knowing who might experience a particularly severe infection,” Bishop-Williams said.
“We recognize that individuals are tired, are potentially wearing down, but we are seeing case numbers climb. Avoid crowded places — these protests included — and follow all public health measures.”
That advice should be a no-brainer, Auld said.
“It’s common knowledge,” she said. “(Protesters) aren’t ‘taking back their freedom,’ they are only taking everyone’s freedom away and putting entire communities at risk with their selfishness.”
Public patience for lockdown measures is wearing thin in some corners while fast-acting COVID-19 variants are sending younger patients to intensive care.
“I am worried,” said Kim Mullins, vice-president of patient care at Norfolk General Hospital in Simcoe and West Haldimand General Hospital in Hagersville.
“I’m worried about what we’re seeing in the surrounding hospitals — that the Hamilton hospitals have outbreaks, that their ICUs are becoming pressured, and that puts pressure on our hospital as well.”
Mullins has seen patients arrive with mild COVID symptoms, only to deteriorate within hours and have to be rushed to a larger hospital to be intubated.
“COVID attacks the respiratory system, so anyone who has ever had issues with breathing would appreciate that that is probably the most frightening condition you can have — not being able to breathe,” she said.
At the same time, Norfolk General is accepting transfers from hospitals in hot spots that need every available ICU bed for COVID patients.
Being in a perpetual state of emergency is taking a toll on health-care workers, Mullins said.
“Our staff are tired, which is similar to all hospitals. We’re over a year now in a pandemic, with constant change, constant pressures, always trying to be prepared,” she said.
“That state of readiness creates a natural level of anxiety in people, and to sustain that over a long period of time is exhausting. Our staff are extremely dedicated and provide exceptional care. They just keep digging deep. But we’re starting to see the pressures of that.”
Mullins is disheartened by shifting attitudes toward public health measures reflected in the anti-lockdown protests and misinformation spreading online.
“It does concern me, I think because of the sheer length of time and conflicting stories people have heard,” she said.
“I would just make the analogy like, we’re in double overtime right now. We’re so close to a win. We’ve just got to hang on a little bit longer, and I think we’re going to come out of this on the other side — hopefully better and stronger, and better people.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator