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The level of vitriol of the anti-vax movement I witnessed in Canada was on a different scale to that experienced in Ireland
A recent visit to see family in Saskatchewan, Canada, highlighted just how well we have done in Ireland with full Covid-19 vaccine rates running at above 92 per cent. In contrast, just as I returned home, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, were experiencing the collapse of their health systems – with hospital care of any kind no longer available unless it is Covid-related. It is the inevitable result of low immunisation rates combined with premature political decisions to reverse basic lockdown mechanisms.
It was frankly quite sad to see the level of anti-science and Covid non-belief that existed in certain parts of Canada. In some cities, there was naked aggression towards hospital workers going about their jobs. In Vancouver, nurses and doctors were heckled and spat on as they walked into work. During one demonstration, protesters even blocked ambulances trying to access a hospital emergency department.
My visit coincided with a federal election campaign that was ugly in tone and unacceptably threatening to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his supporters. Protestors who oppose Covid-19 vaccinations, masks, lockdowns, and vaccine passports repeatedly disrupted the Liberal leader’s campaign. It was the pure hate in the eyes of the protestors and their repeated jabbing of the middle finger at the politician that brought the obscenities to a new and ugly level. And whether a coincidence or not, the Covid-19 demonstrators aimed equally ugly and nasty behaviour at healthcare professionals across Canada.
Look, by now it’s a given that we’ve all had our lives turned upside down by the first global disease pandemic in 100 years. It hasn’t been easy on so many people. And I know that medics here received unexpected abuse in the early stages of the viral surge when routine face-to-face consultations were replaced by remote patient contact. But the level of vitriol I saw in Canada was on a different scale.
Now it has to be said that a broadly held view amongst Canadians was that calling a snap election in August – a full two years before his mandate expired and in the midst of an unprecedented global health threat – was an opportunistic “power grab” by Trudeau. His declared reason for having an election now – “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against Covid-19” – sounded less and less convincing as the campaign progressed. Whether this fully explains the unexpected diatribes at politicians and healthcare professionals is a moot point.
Some doctors and nurses in Canada have been accused of killing patients by grieving family members who don’t believe Covid-19 is real. Others have been the subject of hurtful rumours spread by people angry about the pandemic. In the US state of Idaho, the president of the local hospital association, Brian Whitlock, confirmed physical violence, verbal abuse, and demands for alternative, unapproved treatment were now routine experiences for hospital staff.
“We’re not frustrated with the misinformed. We’re frustrated with those who propagate the misinformation because it’s costing people their lives,” Whitlock said.
Misinformation remains rampant across North America. The occasional genuine mistake by researchers is pounced on by anti-vaxxers and non-Covid believers. A pre-print study by researchers at the Ottawa Heart Institute looked at the rate of myocarditis and pericarditis cases after Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations from 1 June to 31 July. The published results, suggesting an extremely high rate of heart inflammation after Covid-19 vaccination, spread like wildfire on anti-vaccination websites and social media.
The study identified 32 patients with the rare side-effects out of a total of 32,379 doses of mRNA vaccines given in Ottawa in the two-month period, finding an inordinately high rate of close to one-in-1,000 – significantly higher than other international data has shown.
But the researchers failed to record the accurate number of vaccinations given out during that two-month period. Instead of 32,379 mRNA vaccine doses administered in June and July, as the study suggests, there were actually more than 800,000 shots given out at that time, according to Ottawa Public Health. That means the true rate of side-effects is closer to one-in-25,000 – not one-in-1,000.
Despite not getting any mainstream media coverage in Canada or anywhere else at the time it was published, the study quickly spread around the world on social media. The study also showed up on numerous anti-vaccination websites, misrepresented as evidence that the rate of myocarditis had been intentionally underestimated and that thousands of children could be at risk of future heart failure after Covid-19 vaccination. An immediate retraction of the paper and a full mea culpa by the authors did little to dampen the firestorm.
Fake news is something we have to deal with. But the ready resort to violence by vaccine-deniers and other malcontents must be stopped.