Connecting the dots – far right extremism as a serious health threat

As RNAO’s 46,000 members and other blog readers know, RNAO has been vocal (see here and here) about protecting nurses and other health providers in recent weeks from “protesters” close to hospitals all across Ontario. I write “protesters” in quotation marks since these events have been anything but peaceful, democratic expressions of ideas. Rather, these mobs – a more accurate term than protesters – have screamed at, insulted, spit at, harassed and intimidated staff – who are simply trying to reach the hospital to attend to patients and provide services – or those accessing essential health services for themselves or their loved ones. Many have carried signs with hate and disinformation about COVID.

RNAO has been clear that it is unacceptable to disrupt health-care facilities and the targets cannot be patients, families and the healthcare workers that have been at the frontlines of this pandemic for already 20 months. I have also warned of the same demonstrations happening in schools. Protests must move to Queens Park, City Hall or other public spaces, and for this we have for weeks called on Premier Ford to implement #SafeZones, immediately, around health facilities and schools. The latter have already been a target in B.C. and Quebec.

As I have expressed in the media, as a nurse sociologist, I have been concerned that these mob events at hospitals and schools represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of the threat to health represented by the growth of far-right extremism in Canada and in other countries. Today I tackle the larger picture of how the pandemic – the fear, frustration, anger, isolation, uncertainty, loss of jobs, unregulated social media echo chambers, and disinformation – has provided the ill-conceived breeding ground for extremely dangerous social undercurrents.

As health providers and policymakers, we need to become aware of how the increasing organization, visibility and influence of far-right extremism and their ideas and organizations is a serious concern from a health perspective. We need to connect the dots. And we need to act!

Action needs to happen at many fronts – and it must be pursued with political will.

In my estimation, the large majority of those who attend the rallies are people who mean no harm or violence. These are persons who have suffered from COVID-19 restrictions and its consequences, such as job loss, loneliness, and a heightened level of frustration with limited resilience and coping. They carry a lot of fear, frustration and anger. The remaining small and gravely concerning minority is a mix of ideological anti-vaxxers and far-right agitators, including white supremacists, who lead these actions. The organizers, many with links to the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) – a self-denominated “movement” by their leader Maxime Bernier –, are manipulating and using the large majority to their advantage.  

Thus, tackling job loss, loss of hope, social exclusion and other underlying factors that breed anger and resentment, as well as cultures of white supremacy and hate that channel them, are an urgent and ‘must’ policy imperative.

We must tackle the distrust in government by demanding governments that are honest, credible, and committed to the betterment of conditions for all. We must reject governments that are corrupt and engaged in providing privilege to the few.

And we also need to take direct action against far-right extremism. We need to challenge politicians to condemn all far-right and white nationalist expressions. We need to educate politicians and the public that these are not legitimate democratic expressions, and instead see them as sources of hate and violence that use disinformation to create social disruption. We need to discredit and tackle through available democratic means organizations such as the PPC that openly harbour the far-right. We need to use legal means, such as those to enact #SafeZones. And we must enact regulation of social media and message platforms and diminish the role of organized disinformation and hate echo chambers.

These are major policy agendas, and the first step is to recognize we have a problem. That’s where we are, as health policymakers. Let’s recognize and identify the problem of far-right extremism as an enormous threat to our agendas of health and wellbeing for all.

To help in this task, I am including two articles that provide background in Canada and internationally. The first one shows how the anti-vax movement is being radicalized by far-right political extremism in Canada. The second shows how anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and the far-right have came together over COVID in Australia.