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NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre Joel Harden walks with Centretown residents on Kent Street during a 'community safety walk,' in reaction to a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Ottawa that is continuing into its second week, on Feb. 4, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Some Ottawa seniors are afraid to leave their homes alone, so residents are accompanying them for neighbourhood walks. Other individuals need help with grocery deliveries. And at least one health care worker asked for rides to the hospital because he no longer feels safe travelling alone.

People in the city are dealing with the emotional and mental toll of a protest that has occupied downtown Ottawa over the past week as trucks blare their horns at all hours, streets are blocked by large vehicles, and some report physical and verbal abuse from protesters. Experts worry that the stress could have long-lasting effects on the health of residents who have also been navigating life during a pandemic.

“I don’t think, as a resident, that one can look at one’s environment in the same way again. That when there are other protests, this will be a trigger,” said Ivy Bourgeault, professor in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa, said on Sunday.

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The city’s mayor declared a state of emergency on Sunday, more than a week after the protests began. All through this time, however, many residents have been living with a sense of distress. For those who suffer from anxiety, have been victims of violence, or arrived as refugees from war-torn countries, it would cause additional mental-health issues, Prof. Bourgeault said.

“Uncertainty and no control just causes enormous amounts of stress, and that is in addition to the chronic stressors that people have been dealing with in relation to the pandemic,” she said.

Ottawa resident Ellie Charters started a group last week that deploys volunteers so residents don’t have to walk around alone on errands. Ms. Charters said many residents, including seniors, don’t feel safe leaving their homes. She said a health care worker reached out for rides to and from work.

Ms. Charters lives outside the downtown core, but she has seen the convoy of protesters driving by. Her sleep has been sporadic. She’s channelled that restlessness into helping other residents navigate their lives and livelihoods despite the protests.

“I go up and down,” she said. “Sometimes I feel sad, and I’ve been emotional. I’m really scared about how this is going to end.”

Taryn Grieder, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Toronto, said increased stress could have long-lasting physical effects on the brain and body, including a risk of heart disease. There are psychological effects, too, in terms of increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders, and the worsening of any pre-existing mental illness, she said.

“They are suffering pretty significantly in terms of their sleep patterns, their mood, their irritability and their overall physical health. There’s a link between psychological stress and physical effects on the body,” Prof. Grieder said. “It’s not a good situation.”

She added: The protest is “compounding the stress. They’ve already been under this chronic stress of trying to live in a pandemic and then having their life disrupted further on top of that is definitely making things a lot worse for them.”

Resident Tim Abray said he and his family have bags packed in case of violence and they must leave their homes immediately. Mr. Abray said public officials and the provincial government are to blame for not stepping in sooner to help the residents of Ottawa feel safe.

He said he was attacked by protesters early last week when he went into Confederation Park with his cellphone to take pictures. Friends have been verbally and physically attacked, too, he said.

Mr. Abray has not been sleeping well, worrying about what the next day will hold. He can leave his home but has to be cautious.

“The previous two years are nothing in comparison to the last week,” he said. “This is an ever-present imminent, physical and mental community threat.”

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