Outspoken health experts say racist social media attacks have taken a toll
Warning: This story contains offensive language and racist comments
Plenty of Canadians have experienced firsthand how quickly disagreements over public health measures during the pandemic can turn ugly. But a daily flood of hateful attacks received by outspoken medical professionals — especially those who are people of colour — frequently cross the line from outrage to outright personal attacks, racism and even threats of violence.
As restrictions ease across the country and active COVID-19 cases drop, Canadian doctors who took to social media during the crisis to share advice and correct misinformation say the hate they face online isn't going anywhere.
If anything, it's stronger than ever.
"What I thought was bad in March 2020 has actually gotten worse now," said Dr. Amy Tan, a palliative care and family doctor in Victoria.
When anti-Asian hate ramped up last year with the arrival of COVID-19 in North America, Tan said she was inspired to use social media as a platform to call out racism.
She tweets about a range of topics, sharing her own experiences with racism, advocating for the use of masks, discussing vaccines and commenting on social justice issues.
Her social media presence means she's regularly on the receiving end of misogyny and racism from the trolls who send her direct messages, emails and sometimes physical mail.
"I've actually asked my assistant to be careful and wear gloves when she opens mail that looks a little bit suspicious, because I have gotten physical hate mail," Tan said.
One of the most hurtful comments, she said, came after she finished a live TV interview on Canada Day last year.
"I got an email to my work email and it said, I'm an ugly g--k and that my eyes were too tiny and that I needed to open up my eyes," she said.
"[My husband] worries about my own physical safety, but also the toll that it has on me. Our 12-year-old son is getting quite the master class in dealing with racism."
It's not just racialized doctors who've been under fire. Outspoken health advocates across Canada have been trolled, had their accounts hacked and received threats.
Most recently, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin told reporters there had been suspicious activity around his house, and that the severity of online threats targeting him has increased.
"I've certainly had a number of threats against me and my family. I've been in contact with security and the police, and I've had it followed up," he said on Monday.
'Like the Wild, Wild West'
Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and a lecturer at the University of Toronto, acknowledged most health professionals have dealt with quite a bit of hate during the pandemic.
"Health workers of all stripes have been targeted, but I think health workers who are people of colour — racialized health workers who have been public — have been targeted especially in nasty ways," Dosani said.
Dosani was active on social media before the pandemic started. He used Twitter, Instagram and TikTok to comment on social issues, such as better health-care standards for people who are homeless.
When the crisis hit Canada, he continued to advocate on issues of racism and injustice, while also pivoting to raise awareness about physical distancing and masks.
He has tried reporting racist comments to the social media platforms he uses, he said, but there are so many it's hard to keep up. "It feels like the Wild, Wild West sometimes."
In one screenshot he shared with CBC News, an Instagram user messaged him privately to call him a "subhuman brownie," sharing a video of a man spitting.
Often the comments are about the colour of his skin, the way he looks, or the fact he has a Muslim name, Dosani said.
Another private message sent to his Facebook account reads: "If you don't like it here, how about you go back to that shithole you're from and see how far you get? Until that time, shut the f--k up!"
The hate can be very real and hurtful, Dosani said. Some messages have left him scared, others just made him angry.
"There are days that I feel like, why am I doing this? Because it's just a lot of personal toll."
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As the pandemic evolves and topics have shifted from lockdowns, to masks, to vaccines, Dosani said the haters haven't eased up: they've only changed the focus of their anger.
"In many ways, the trolling continues and, in some cases, has increased," he said.
So far he's put up with the trolls, because he believes doctors have a "moral obligation to put out science-based and evidence-based information," especially at a time when online misinformation is rampant.
Unless the comments go far enough to justify a criminal investigation, doctors in Canada who are outspoken on social media say they're mostly on their own when it comes to dealing with trolls.
Beyond reporting and flagging racist comments to the social media platforms, there's not much they can do.
"If I was at a health-care institution, working in person, and someone came in and was verbally aggressive, being racist toward me, there would generally be repercussions," Dosani said. "When you are online, those safeguards are not present."
Will hate leave some feeling muzzled?
Canadian Medical Association (CMA) president Dr. Ann Collins said she's seen how bad the trolls can be on social media — and she worries about the toll on doctors.
The CMA advocates for the interests of Canadian physicians and issues in the health-care sector. Even before the pandemic, Collins said they were concerned about the rate of burnout among doctors.
"The potential downside is that some of those individuals who are good advocates, who speak the truth well, who have good evidence … they will feel, in some instances, that they're being muzzled by this vitriol," she said.
'I've tried to avoid discussing it'
Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family physician in Burlington, Ont., has no plans to let the trolls silence her.
When the pandemic hit last year, Kwan co-founded the group Masks4Canada to advocate for the use of masks and also started using Twitter to share COVID-19 data in Ontario. She spends at least an hour every day compiling data and building the graphs that she tweets out, to help people understand how COVID-19 is affecting the province.
"I know it has been helpful for a lot of people," she said. "In all parts of life, you're never going to be getting 100 per cent positive feedback."
When she started, she didn't anticipate such a negative backlash.
"I've tried to avoid discussing it, because I don't want to be platforming this kind of hateful behaviour."
But when asked about it, Kwan acknowledges she's dealt with racist and sexist comments, emails and phone calls.
"It does feel sometimes like we're on our own, because unless there's a physical threat, it's not something that we can report to law enforcement or any authority," Kwan said.
Still, she does her best to ignore the haters.
"A lot of these hateful comments come from anonymous people," Kwan said. "If they're not even able to put their own name and face on social media, then why should we care about their comments, when we're putting ourselves out there?"
Was it worth it?
The trolls got bad enough for University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan that he resorted to locking down his personal Twitter account; only the people he approved were allowed to see his tweets.
Deonandan, who has an infant son, said he realized he needed to think about the potential toll on his family.
It's not that the constant stream of comments, like "you should go back where you came from," were particularly hurtful to Deonandan; growing up in Toronto in the 1970s as a non-white person helped him develop a thick skin.
"Some harsh words aren't going to hurt me," he said. "It just makes me sad. It makes me sad for the future of my son."
He was pushed to lock down his account, he said, when he realized it had stopped being worth it. The final straw was a couple months ago, when someone tried to hack into his Twitter.
"It's at the point where I don't know if what I've done has been useful. And it's been unpleasant."
Deonandan has been active online for years, through social media and on his personal blog. He's always been willing to engage with haters and try to create a thoughtful back-and-forth, he said, but during the pandemic, things changed.
"I discovered that a lot of people are not looking for a conversation. They're just looking to hurt you."
People have sent Deonandan indirect threats of violence, like, "Somebody should beat you up." Some actually contacted his university dean and tried to get him fired.
"It was making my spouse unhappy. It was making me unhappy. My employer was also getting a little concerned about the amount of abuse I was taking," he said.
But he doesn't want to come off as "woe is me."
"For every horrible message that I get, I get 50 that are quite supportive."
Tan, on the other hand, said the trolls have only reminded her how important it is to keep speaking out. "If anything, my conviction to fight for all the inequities that COVID has shone a light on has been fuelled," she said.
Dosani agrees. Despite the emotional toll of his social media advocacy, he said he's not backing down.
"I'm just getting started. The hate and vitriol will not stop me."