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Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam at a technical briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Jan. 15, 2021.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Allan O’Dette is the CEO of the Ontario Medical Association.

For more than a year, medical officers of health across the country have been tasked with navigating an impossible situation, delivering news people don’t want to hear and managing supply that simply isn’t there. And in exchange for their labours, their day-to-day work has left them with newfound empathy for meteorologists on a stormy day, store clerks on Black Friday or captains of delayed flights, as one medical officer of health recently told me.

Now, deadly variants are putting Canadians in heightened danger and jurisdictions all over the country are imposing new levels of restrictions. Vaccinations are rolling out, but slowly, and some people are unhappy with their place in line.

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As emotions spill over, public-health physicians that serve in an official capacity continue to advocate for our well-being despite being targeted with name-calling, foul language and even threats of violence.

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

There are examples all across Canada. Attacks on Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public-health officer, came swiftly with the start of the pandemic and persist to this day. In British Columbia, what started as a fan page dedicated to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry turned ugly and had to be deleted. Abusive letters turned to death threats; she has needed to have security protection in her home.

In Ontario, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health, says his e-mail inbox is, at times, a torrent of hatred every single day. Let me give you a flavour of the hate mail he is receiving, because perhaps reading the actual words of these horrible messages will make people think twice before posting an angry tweet or firing off an incendiary e-mail.

“Greetings Dr. Loh. You are a sad excuse of a person and I want nothing but pain and suffering for you. The same pain and suffering you have caused the citizens of this region. I hope I never run into you in person. Fuck you.”

Another letter writer declares: “It is clear to me that doctors in public health were at the bottom of their classes. They chose not to go into the bloody mess of surgery, the sadness of oncology, the genius of research and the humble ongoing service of general practice. Clearly, you and your ilk preferred a bureaucratic 9-5 job and to tell people what to do.”

When Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the Chief Medical Officer of Niagara Region, announced an extended lockdown in that area in February, opponents called for his firing, arrest and assault – even his beheading. “Let’s put his head on a stick,” read one Facebook post. The messages were so threatening that police launched an investigation into them.

This is unacceptable in a civil society. Bullying, threats and of course any acts of violence are abhorrent and should not be tolerated.

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Physicians need to be able to advocate safely for the well-being of their patients, and this is especially true of public-health physicians. They must simultaneously take into account considerations around medicine, infection disease control, community health, social determinants of health and, yes, politics.

We might have strong feelings around governments’ decisions to open up or shut down the regions where we live, or how to administer vaccines. But public-health physicians provide advice that will save lives and aim to stop the spread of disease. Eventually, the sacrifices they are asking us to make will get us to that place where businesses and society can safely reopen.

These physicians deserve our admiration, not our derision. They have made enormous personal sacrifices, taken risks and worked around the clock to steer us through the worst public-health crisis of our generation.

They’ve gotten us this far, and they will get us to the end of this pandemic under extraordinary challenge and adversity. They are owed a huge debt of gratitude as well as our support.

I’m asking everyone to focus their energy on following their medical advice. Follow public-health measures and work with our public-health experts, not against them, as they make recommendations based on the best available science to help us push past the heightened threat we are currently under. And let’s all commit to giving them the respect they deserve.

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