Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be so sad. Dispiriting, sure: , 18 months into a pandemic, as burned-out health-care workers stared down at people who statistically may be the most likely to end up inside a hospital with . There had been vows online to block ambulances, and even isolated threats of guns from some People’s Party of Canada supporters. There is a virus in this country, beyond the obvious one.
“You’ve all got blood on your hands! You’re worse than the Nazis!” one middle-aged man yelled at the TV cameras, outside Toronto General Hospital. “You’ll have rocks thrown at you, next!” A few yelled Fake News like they were at karaoke. Mostly, they rejected vaccines. Society, too.
But at ground level there was something piteous about it, malignancy and all. The trappings of a brain-poisoned movement dotted the crowd: a couple of red Make America Great Again hats, some purple People’s Party of Canada gear, a hat from . There was a one-page anti-mask, anti-lockdown, , pamphlet handed out that claimed a vaccine passport was the mark of the beast.
“I don’t have time for this s—,” said infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, shepherding some of his team across the street to Mount Sinai, on what he described as a busy day.
Who protests a hospital? Who is that lost? Well, it’s a coalition, of sorts. The hardcore anti-vaxx movement — which is separate from the Canadians who are still merely hesitant — can be borderline rabid. The vitriol and inchoate anger that follows the Liberal party during the election is a blend of conservative disaffection. The PPC is a vehicle for it, and the Conservative party plays a little footsie. You’ve seen something like that tone in the U.S. , too.
“I was leaving a vaccine clinic at city hall in May and some of them shouted, go back to your own country with your mask,” said Nishant Chaudhari, a health service administrator at UHN. “And I said, if you pay for a first-class ticket, I’d happily go home, I’m from India. It’s been three years. They didn’t know what to say to that.”
And at the same time, most people protesting outside the hospital were clearly lost souls. One carried a giant wooden cross; one had tattoos drawn on with a marker; one had a sign that misspelled the mayor’s name as J. Tori. Some seemed hungry for confrontation that never really came, but it was largely social: they swapped conspiracy theories, or recorded one another. More than anything, they seemed lonely. But then, so do QAnon fanatics, or Trumpian rallygoers. Lonely people are easy prey for conspiracies.
“I’ve never met so many people who are into flat earth,” said Radu Dragan, a 35-year-old resident of Toronto, and a regular at protests. “I’ve never met so many people that believed in it, and it’s like a religion. And you can’t tell people that they’re an idiot because they believe in flat earth, because it’s like a religious belief.”
Dragan doesn’t believe the earth is flat, and he wasn’t one of those who yelled at the press, or for the benefit of a camera from The Rebel. He tried to calm people down. He has shot YouTube videos of protests and moved to TikTok, and some have been picked up by people like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, or the . Dragan smokes but says he won’t get vaccinated, because he doesn’t trust what the vaccines will do to him. He mentions his wife disagrees, though.
“I’ll die on this hill, literally,” he said.
So he comes to the protests, and the people there have replaced his former circle of friends, even dotted as it is with the paranoid, the stressed, and people who vibrate on strange, off-reality frequencies. Society has always had people like this. But if you communicate on Facebook, Telegram, Instagram and TikTok, it can become a social circuit.
The fundamental malignancy comes with it, though. There is a school of thought that if only we are nicer to people who think health-care workers are criminals and vaccine advocates violate the Nuremberg Code, then they will come around.
Some people are lost, and can’t be brought back. Look, 84.4 per cent of Ontarians who are 12 and older have had at least a first dose of the vaccine, which is almost identical to the national number of 84.13 per cent as of Monday morning, as is about 78 per cent for second doses. More of an outreach, education and equity-based approach should be able to push that number higher; a working vaccine passport could help, if we’re smart and compassionate enough. We’re not the United States.
But there is an anger out there in Canada living at the conservative end of the spectrum, as in the polls.
“Some of these movements are like a bug light for more radical groups,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who specializes in the study of extremism. “It’s not something you can just not have a police presence for, otherwise you wind up with a smaller version of Jan. 6. The vast majority of people on Jan. 6 weren’t violent, .
“A lot of these groups are getting their content from abroad as well; there’s this theory that our crazies are not as crazy as America’s. Yeah, but they’re reading American content. They’re talking to them on Facebook … these movements are transnational.
“If that kind of rhetoric continues, the general theory is that we’re about five or six years behind American politics. So this could be a huge feature three elections from now, as it steams along. Maybe this protest you see 200 people, but two years from now you see much more. Is this an indication of what’s to come, or is this just a blip, and that’s not easy to say.”
And that was the disquieting part. There is an anger and misinformation virus in this country that has been encouraged by some pretend and even mainstream media, and it could absolutely eat our conservative movement. This time there was no violence, and no ambulances were blocked. Thank goodness.
Instead it was mostly a bunch of sad lonely people together on a sidewalk, loosely united in a cause, feeling like they had a purpose, and unaware, while outside a hospital filled with the truly sick, that they had become the monsters.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: