The virulent spread of disinformation and an increasingly polarized political environment has fueled threats of violence against healthcare workers and academics. It has also resulted in aggressive efforts by some to obstruct access to health care facilities by patients and caregivers.

Canada’s Liberal government under PM Justin Trudeau has just introduced legislation in response to these threats. It includes two new offences under Canada’s Criminal Code: one increases penalties for anyone threatening a health-care worker, those who assist them, and anyone trying to access health services; the other would apply to anyone caught obstructing a person’s access to a health-care facility. The punishment for either would be up to 10 years in prison, 5 years more than the existing penalty. These changes would give police and prosecutors additional tools under Canada’s Criminal Code to protect healthcare providers and patients from intimidation, threats, violence and the obstruction of their lawful use of healthcare facilities. The Canadian Medical Association’s President Dr. Katherine Smart has asked for a speedy passage of this bill through the Canadian Parliament to avoid preventable tragedies.

CUGH is calling on nations to strengthen their judicial protections for health workers, patients and academics who are also subjected to threats of violence for carrying out their work or accessing health care services.
Sabina Vohra-Miller, a PhD student in public health and vaccine educator, who has been subjected to violent harassment for her work to stop the spread of SARS-COV-2 said, “Online harassment is an issue that transcends borders. The anonymity that the internet provides emboldens the worst actors in our society and makes us wonder whether any of this work is worth the personal cost that comes with it.”

Dr. Gavin Yamey, CUGH Board member said, “During this pandemic, too many academics and health professionals have needed police protection for their work promoting public health measures, such as vaccines or masks. Among my network of colleagues, women scientists—particularly women of color—and LGBT scientists have received more frequent and more extreme threats. We have to take steps to end this anti-science aggression: people are already leaving the profession in fear of their lives.”

Dr. Keith Martin, CUGH’s Executive Director said, “Everyone has a right to exercise their freedom of speech and hold any beliefs they choose. No one has a right to harass or threaten anyone with violence or prevent a person from accessing heath care services. Governments around the world must enact and enforce legislation that protects health workers, patients and scientists from harassment and threats of violence as they carry out their duties or seek medical care.”