How misinformation turns nurses into villains

By Evan Loree and Nicole Garbanzos

Photo by D.J. Paine on Unsplash

Nurses were once hailed as heroes but now feel like villains. Since the start of the pandemic, they have experienced an uptick of abuse, both in the hospitals they work for and on the social media accounts they manage. On top of that, they have reported high burnout and deteriorating mental health. Nurses continue to strive for the highest quality of care for their patients, but they are starting to ask themselves what it’s going to cost.

Since 2020, nurses have been fending off abuse from patients, online anti-vaxxers, and Covid deniers. According to CMAJ News, 68 percent of nurses who cared for a COVID-19 patient experienced heightened physical violence. Another 20 percent said they had experienced nine or more patient altercations that year. In the Cox Medical Center Branson in Missouri, they are planning to install panic buttons in all 400 of their staff’s identification badges. The hospital’s security reports an increase from 94 incidents of violence in 2019 to 162 in 2020.

Lianne is a former bedside nurse who now works for the public health telephone line. She recalls her time at the hospital as unsafe and unsupportive.

“We would have to care for physically abusive patients who would spit at us, call us incompetent, kick us. Which was so unsafe,” said Lianne.

She also says she received verbal abuse from her patient’s families. They would call her lazy and useless for not keeping them updated on their relative’s condition. In her present role, physical altercations are unheard of, but now she faces a new kind of nuisance: Covid deniers.

Since the start of the pandemic, misinformation has spread just as fast as Covid. Former US President Donald Trump’s statement of bleach consumption eradicating COVID-19 was just the beginning. Various conspiracy groups’ insist the mRNA vaccine changes a person’s DNA. Public health officials are now challenged with combating misinformation and the pandemic. According to Stats Canada, 90 percent of Canadians used an online source to learn about the virus. About 96 percent recalled seeing missing or misleading information, while a quarter reported being exposed to it multiple times a day.

Amie Archibald-Varley is a speaker, advocate, and co-host of The Gritty Nurse Podcast. She also works as a Quality and Safety Specialist for emergency services. She says the numerous online threats nurses receive have weighed heavily on their mental health. She adds how the harassment has contributed to nurses experiencing public assault.

“We were their heroes,” says Amie. But things are different now. “Nurses at the same time were even yelled and spit at in public.”

Sara Fung (left) and Amie Archibald Varley (right) hosts of the nursing podcast The Gritty Nurses

Heather MacDougall is a retired Associate Professor from the University of Waterloo. She specializes in Canadian history, the history of medicine, and public health and its policies.

Supporting Amie’s point, she adds how some Canadians have unfortunately adopted an “American-style rhetoric” since the 2010s. She says, due to the loss of public trust in government officials, they believe their ideologies are enough to justify their threats against health care professionals and the organizations they work for.

Fortunately, last month, Bill C-3 was passed. This legislation recognizes the harm and unsafe conditions nurses have worked in, even before the pandemic. The Bill also criminalizes whoever seeks to hurt nurses. The Ontario Nurses Association released a pre-budget submission last week. It seeks to present nine specific solutions to address their overwhelming shortages.

With the passing of Bill C-3, nurses in Ontario have reason to feel optimistic as negotiations move forward on their new contract. With nurses stretched as thinly as they are, the news is a welcome breath of fresh air. Relief is slow, but it might finally be on the way.