Doctor holds counter-protest against anti-vaccine protest outside his Toronto hospital
'Treat us with dignity and respect' says Dr. Raghu Venugopal
Emergency department physician Raghu Venugopal stood by himself, in his scrubs, outside Toronto General Hospital Monday holding up a sign that said "Protect Hospitals" in an effort to counter dozens of protesters who are opposed to COVID-19 public health measures.
Across the country, people stood in protest outside hospitals, the result of an effort organized by a group called Canadian Frontline Nurses, which was founded by two Ontario nurses who have promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
Venugopal's photo spread quickly across social media. He said he felt compelled to take action outside the hospital because so much important health-care work took place inside and he wanted to defend his fellow health-care workers, registered nurses in particular.
"I think this is particularly abominable by protesters to do this when nurses are leaving acute care hospitals in droves because the working conditions [are] simply too much for them," he told As It Happens host Carol Off while on his way to another hospital emergency room.
Here is part of their conversation.
Dr. Venugopal, why did you decide to stand outside alone and face down these protesters today?
Carol, hospitals are places where people who are injured and who are sick come for care, come for compassion, come for respect, and I honestly thought that to protest at that particular hospital in Toronto today was honestly a defilement of very sacred ground for many patients and for many families and many staff who work and get treated there.
There's a photograph of you standing alone in front of Toronto General Hospital with this very simple handmade sign, "Protect Hospitals." What kind of reaction did you get from people?
There were a lot of patients and staff who said, honestly, thank you. And there was a research student who got me a bottle of water because it's really hot. And most of the protesters were very friendly, [but] it got quite heated, though. And I had to step behind the police line because at some point I really start getting scared.
Why, what happened?
It's the jeers, it's the nasty tone in the voice, it's when you're the only one standing in a uniform and there are a lot of people, quite hostile, around you.
It disgusted me to no end that they would target that particular hospital where I know such good cancer care and transplant care and medical and surgical care is done.- Emergency physician Raghu Venogopal
And you're wearing your scrubs, you're wearing a mask, you're wearing your stethoscope around your neck. What were some of the things people said or ... the jeers that made you so uncomfortable?
People said things like, "You're a doctor, tell the truth," and I wasn't trying to hide my identity and I wasn't trying to hide that I worked there. But the reality is, is that, you know, regardless of whether people are vaccinated or are against mandates or are for them, you know, when they're a patient, honestly, we treat them with respect and dignity and compassion.
And I think for the nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and cleaners who work in our hospital, we ask the public to treat us with dignity and respect as well. And in particular, I just want to signal a group that suffered the most during the pandemic, which is registered nurses. And I think this is particularly abominable by protesters to do this when nurses are leaving acute care hospitals in droves because the working conditions [are] simply too much for them.
And yet the group ... that calls itself Canadian Frontline Nurses seems to be the one behind organized protests, and these kinds of demonstrations in cities, across the country. What do you say to them?
First of all, these are not practicing nurses and these are not practicing health-care professionals. And I think if you need any nurses or doctors who actually see patients, who actually take care of COVID patients, they would say get vaccinated. And if you're not sure about getting vaccinated, ask your doctor for more information.
People have a right to protest, but these laws of the land are not written behind the hospital walls. The laws of the land are written by our governments, in our municipal governments and in our federal governments — in Toronto, for example, at Queen's Park. And I would respectfully ask protesters to go there.
But let me be clear, Carol, that honestly, the vast majority of people I meet, which is in the emergency room, are patient, are supportive of vaccine mandates, of their understanding of the science, are asking good questions and know how to make good decisions. And I honestly think that the protesters that we're seeing today and across the country are a tiny minority of Canadians.
But why confront them at all then? I mean, online and [on] Twitter today these past days, the people who were in these protests, who say they're part of them, are not just saying that they're against vaccines, they're threatening violence in some cases, that some of these protesters, if you can follow what they're saying on Twitter, have violent intentions. And so why did you go out to confront them?
The hospital chosen in Toronto is a very special place where some of the best medicine and science in this country is done. And it disgusted me to no end that they would target that particular hospital where I know such good cancer care and transplant care and medical and surgical care is done. It disturbed me and I thought the best way to express my opinion would be to very respectfully hold a sign saying, "We need to protect hospitals."
And we have a legislative record in this country and in our municipalities of protecting health-care sites. And what I think our municipal leaders and solicitor generals in each province need to do is to look at the laws so that in the future, harassment, intimidation, physical assault, psychological assault of healthcare workers, patients and families is no longer tolerable. And I think the majority of Canadians would feel that's reasonable.
You mentioned the legislatures and their responsibilities. The provinces, including Ontario, where you work, they can pass injunction laws, can't they? I mean, they can do something about this. What do you make of the fact that they're not?
The people in the hospital are not of any political stripe. And what we have to ask honestly is why is the mayor of Toronto and why is the premier of Ontario acting so slowly? We know clearly that First Nations and Indigenous communities, when they have protested, they have been met by police violence. And the very tepid response by authorities and politicians to this particular group speaks volumes that I don't need to further, you know, articulate.
But really what we need is protection of patients and families and decency around health-care institutions. And that's a very simple ask. And I think, again, most people would be in favour of that.
Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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