Healthcare workers across Canada are reporting that the opening of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages five to 11 has sparked increased anger among some people. This change accompanies escalating violence against physicians and nurses globally throughout the pandemic.

According to the Canadian Medical Association, preliminary results from the CMA’s 2021 National Physician Health Survey suggest more than 75% of physicians have experienced intimidation, bullying and/or harassment in the workplace. In fact, more than one-third of physicians reported experiencing these issues at least a few times a month, with the harassment being more pronounced for women and visible minorities.

In response to this increase in violence, public health units across the Canadian province Ontario have been advised to have a police presence or nearby availability at all pediatric clinics, said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, who is a pediatrician and Medical Officer of Health and CEO of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.

Additionally, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is calling for safe zones around hospitals and other health settings where patients seek the care they need and where healthcare professionals work. The organization has also called for amendments to the Criminal Code that would make it a criminal offense to threaten or harassment health workers physically or online.

"At the CMA, we’re asking for the federal government to make good on their promise to enact legislation to specifically protect healthcare workers from violence and harassment both in person and online," said Dr. Katherine Smart, president of the CMA and a pediatrician in Whitehorse, Yukon.

"We’ve also reached out to social media platforms to let them know we do not feel the platforms right now are adequate from a safety perspective in terms of ensuring that this type of violence isn’t propagated."

Dr. Smart said it’s also unacceptable that physicians and patients are being harassed as they make their way into hospitals. She said that inside hospitals, some patients who have the deadly virus are being abusive to healthcare workers as they receive their diagnosis.

"We’re seeing protests outside hospitals... and then violent behavior inside hospitals as people very sick, often with COVID-19, are refusing to believe that’s what’s going on and lashing out against the healthcare providers trying to help them."

Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family physician in Burlington, Ontario, said the abuse directed at her has been "hateful, sexist and racist."

"I did not expect that asking people to wear masks during a pandemic would be so divisive and controversial," she said.

Doctors described how the public backlash is contributing to burnout among physicians and other healthcare workers, which was already on the rise as a result of the pandemic’s pressures. Measures supported by the CMA may have a mitigating effect on the violence.