Protests leave health-care workers feeling betrayed, undervalued

Staffers at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington are feeling disheartened, betrayed and undervalued in the face of anti-vaccination protests outside their building.

After 18 months trying to save lives, resilience is 'starting to run low,' says Burlington hospital executive

Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington built a 93-bed pandemic response unit in 2020. It has recently been the site of a protest and is expecting another one in coming days. (Joseph Brant/Twitter)

After working flat-out for more than 18 months of the pandemic, staffers at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington are feeling disheartened, betrayed and undervalued in the face of anti-vaccination protests outside their building, says a hospital executive. 

About 300 protesters gathered near the downtown Burlington facility Sept. 1, shouting anti-vaccine messages and profanities. As the hospital prepares for another protest expected in the coming days, executive vice-president Leslie Motz says she wants the wider public to know just how bad things have gotten, and how much it's affecting workers.

"This just feels like a final betrayal after 18 months of really hard work trying to save lives," Motz, who is also the hospital's chief nursing executive, told CBC Hamilton. "This has been a really long 18 months. You can appreciate being in healthcare and resilience starting to run low." 

Protests at hospitals against vaccination mandates have escalated throughout the country over the federal election period. The federal Liberals and NDP have since promised to criminalize blocking access to hospitals. Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath has proposed a bill creating safety zones around hospitals and other establishments that have seen aggressive protests. She plans to introduce it once the Ontario legislature reconvenes.

Protesters gather on the site of the Joseph Brant Museum, near the local hospital, on Sept. 1, 2021. (Supplied/Joseph Brant Hospital)

Motz took her hospital name tag off in order to observe the protest outside of Joseph Brant Hospital — saying she felt too intimidated to leave it on — and says she saw repeated yelling and profanity directed at any passersby that weren't in support of the group. She says protesters' messages included those against mandatory vaccines, lockdowns and masking, as well as misinformation about the safety of vaccination. 

While most passersby did not react directly to the protesters, she said what she saw inside the hospital that day, including people crying and workers huddled together for support, shook her "to the core.

"I saw some flashes of anger... as well," she added. "Some of our staff were angry they'd be put in the position of having to hear and see that, and angry our patients had to be part of that."

Motz says that being faced with an anti-vaccination movement makes it clear to workers that COVID's onslaught on hospitals could continue for some time. That realization has left burned-out healthcare workers in a fragile emotional state. "It's been really, really hard, and feels like the last 18 months for some folks have all been in vain."

Protesters holding signs with slogans such as 'my body, my choice' march near Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington on Sept. 1, 2021. (Supplied/Joseph Brant Hospital)

She follows the organizers of such events closely online in order to help the hospital prepare for future protests, and says they seem to be targeting hospitals because they know it will draw attention. While she didn't want to give media attention to the protesters, she thinks people need to know what's happening in order to give healthcare workers the support they need, much like people did earlier in the pandemic. 

"This feels like... the straw that broke the camel's back for staff," she said. "They are feeling betrayed and undervalued by the public."

As of Monday, there had not been any protests at St. Joseph's Healthcare facilities in Hamilton, according to hospital spokesperson Christine Cho. Hamilton Health Sciences said Tuesday that none have been held at its sites, which include Hamilton General Hospital and McMaster Children's Hospital, but there was one nearby, at McMaster University, on Sept. 2.

'If there's not an audience, they lose their soapbox'

Doctors Kerry Beal and Joe Oliver frequently walk around Hamilton offering vaccines to anyone they come across, and say they encounter plenty of people who don't support vaccination. But because most of their interactions are one-on-one, they believe it's harder for people to become aggressive like they might when bolstered by a crowd.

"I wouldn't say we've had a lot of attacks," said Beal, the lead physician with Shelter Health Network. "We've had… people who need to tell us their whole life story and why we're wrong… If there's not an audience out there to play to, a lot of these guys lose their soapbox [when] they see they're getting nowhere with us."

Oliver says he has hope that even the most virulent anti-vaxxers can come around if treated with empathy and respect when discussing their concerns — he's seen it numerous times. But he notes that what he experiences in person and online are also two different things, saying people seem to become braver and more aggressive with the cover of anonymity.

"I try not to read too many of the comments under the articles about us," said Oliver, who works as a pediatrician in Hamilton, Huntsville and on the James Bay coast. "One of them read as if someone was threatening our lives. [They] said we should be 'struck from the earth.'"