Rallies against mandatory COVID-19 shots more a 'means of organizing' than about vaccines, says RNAO's CEO

The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) believes the pandemic is providing "fringe groups of extreme, extreme ideology a means of organizing," and their rallies against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations aren't about vaccines at all.  

Recent London Health Sciences Centre protest among several organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses

This week's rally at London Health Sciences Centre in southwestern Ontario was among several across Canada to protest mandatory vaccinations. ( Marc Emery/Twitter)

Some nurses are disappointing their colleagues by being involved in rallies opposing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, says the head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), who believes the pandemic has attracted protesters more interested in organizing than issues surrounding vaccines, masks or lockdowns.

Doris Grinspun said the pandemic is providing "fringe groups of extreme, extreme ideology a means of organizing."

She spoke following a recent anti-mandatory vaccination rally at the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) that was organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses, whose website says its mission is to advocate for "medical freedom." 

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario shown in 2020, says some of the rallies are more about 'organizing' than the issues of COVID-19 vaccines, masks or lockdowns. (CBC)

According to posters, "vaxxed or unvaxxed" and "masked or unmasked" people were welcome to the rally, which included similar events across Canada.

Canadian Frontline Nurses told CBC London the events were "for the health-care workers, many were in attendance" and it "was about the mandatory vaccine policy placed on health-care workers."

LHSC is requiring that anyone working at the hospital in any capacity be fully vaccinated by Oct. 22. Those who refuse risk losing their jobs, with the interim CEO citing the safety of patients in light of an increase in COVID-19 cases in Ontario. 

"It's puzzling, it's upsetting, it's even infuriating when you see that these protests were happening at places where health-care professionals are giving it all, and I mean, it all," said Grinspun. "They have not had any break. They have not had vacation." 

She said some nurses called her in tears. 

"They are devastated by trying to do all they can, but also by having potentially — and some of them think they know who they are — colleagues that are engaging in this. I mean, thankfully, this is the fringe minority of the nursing profession and of the medical or other professions."

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Peter Bergmanis, founder of the London Health Coalition, said "there is a split opinion" in the medical community about vaccinations. 

"It's not uncommon to have like up to 30 per cent of the employees refuse to do a flu vaccine annually, for instance," Bergmanis said.

Peter Bergmanis of the London Health Coalition says a health-care worker who opposes mandatory vaccinations isn't necessarily anti-science, as they point to 'other scientific explanations' to back their views. (Gary Ennett/CBC News)

However, he added, when it comes to COVID-19, "we're dealing with something far more contagious and far more lethal." 

Bergmanis said opposing mandatory vaccinations doesn't necessarily mean a health-care worker is anti-science, as they point to "other scientific explanations" to back their views.

"So, they believe they're as evidence-based as our science is, but of course, the stuff on the fringe gets very murky, and it gets rolled up into things that are quite controversial," he said. 

"As far as them being completely ridiculous, it isn't that so much as the fact that they're picking a narrative that might suit their mindset a little more readily than the common one that's provided by governments, for instance."

Insight into conspiracy theories

Peter Collins, an associate professor of forensic psychiatry at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, said conspiracy theories generally thrive at "times of crisis and social upheaval." 

"People are isolated, they're feeling trapped at home, and there's been heightened fear and anxiety," he said. "Because of this continuing stream of updated and contradictory information, lots of things end up being believed by people who are less trustful of science and scientists, and newer conspiracy theories build on these legacy theories."

One legacy theory, he said, is the belief vaccines can lead to autism. 

People buy into these theories in part because social media have a huge reach, said Collins, explaining there's "gatekeeping" in mainstream media, but this doesn't exist as much in the social media landscape, and that's how false information can spread.

"Research has shown that people who feel powerless or vulnerable are more likely to endorse and spread conspiracy theories," he said, "and this is why these online forums end up spreading more and more of these conspiracies."