Before COVID-19, Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth rarely posted on social media. A family doctor in Ottawa, Ont., her days were busy enough with appointments and meetings. In March 2020, however, Kaplan-Myrth started tweeting about the virus and the struggles of Canadian health workers.
She’s been active online ever since.
“For me, as a family doctor […] I don’t think I tweeted anything in 10 years,” Kaplan-Myrth told The Pigeon in an interview. “I really didn’t see any role for myself doing much online, until the pandemic started.”
With the pandemic came misinformation about the virus and the introduction of vaccines. To counteract this, physicians and other medical professions have become internet savvy.
Social media has been a vital tool for health workers to connect with the public, media, and political representatives. Through platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook, advocates have been dispelling misinformation and sharing stories from the front lines.
This kind of digital activism can be an extra burden for already overworked frontline professionals, but Kaplan-Myrth said she often feels like it’s the only way to be heard.
“What sort of unfolded over the last year is more and more healthcare providers being active and advocating on social media,” she said. “My perspective as a family doctor right from the start of the pandemic was that in Ontario […] we were pretty much being pushed to the side.”
Social media also helped Kaplan-Myrth reach out to other medical professionals during the first months of the pandemic—not only in Ontario, but across Canada. She realized that her connections in different fields were struggling with similar issues but didn’t have a common platform to address their concerns.
The idea to organize a roundtable discussion between health workers grew from there.
“Even though health care is provincial and territorial […] there should be some kind of national framework for equity,” Kaplan-Myrth recalled thinking. “There should be some sort of discussion across the country, about how the same problems are plaguing each of us.”
That idea became a tangible plan once Kaplan-Myrth began compiling a list of notable healthcare professionals she interacted with online. Her goal was to convince Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to join a virtual discussion.
“I proposed it to the prime minister—I just tagged him [on Twitter] a few times,” she explained.
Thanks to social media, Kaplan-Myrth connected with the prime minister’s office in Jan. 2021. After months of feeling unheard, she had a chance to express her concerns at the federal level alongside her colleagues.
On Feb. 11, 2021, the prime minister’s official Twitter account live-streamed a digital roundtable between Trudeau, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, and 13 frontline healthcare workers across Canada.
Over the course of an hour, Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Hajdu listened as workers in nursing, long-term care, midwifery, family health, and other medical professions voiced their fears about current and future vaccine distribution plans.
Kaplan-Myrth said this public event—and the relationships that made it possible—was a major achievement.
“Building up networks and having these conversations has been one of the silver linings to the pandemic,” she said. “I wouldn’t have met these people [otherwise], and we wouldn’t be having these kinds of conversations about what’s going on.”
Digital advocacy, real-life impacts
Frontline healthcare workers across Canada have been using social media for advocacy in droves since the beginning of the pandemic.
Dr. Naheed Dosani, a Toronto-based physician and advocate who spoke at the Feb. 11 roundtable, is one of them. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, he’s been using social media platforms to destigmatize topics surrounding health. His TikTok account has nearly 12,000 followers, while his Twitter has 23,000.
Another roundtable attendee, Dr. Lynora Saxinger, circulates vaccine statistics, infection numbers, and provincial restriction explanations daily to her 14,500 Twitter followers. Many of her interactions are with other physicians, but members of the public also reply to her posts, often thanking her for breaking down the complicated topics.
While having a digital presence helps these health care workers to better connect with their patients and the public, others say they only started posting because they weren’t feeling heard by provincial and federal representatives.
Dr. Amy Tan is a palliative care and family physician in Victoria, B.C. Like Kaplan-Myrth, she didn’t become active on social media until the beginning of the pandemic.
“What brought me to advocacy […] was actually hearing the stories of my patients,” she told The Pigeon in an interview.
“As a physician, I’ve heard firsthand [from] my patients who are racialized and [who] have been treated like second-class citizens in Canada. They feel that they are being completely ignored from day one in all public health measures.”
Tan began speaking out online on behalf of her patients, many of whom were working in high-risk jobs like meatpacking. When she relocated to Victoria a few months into the pandemic to work in hospice care, Tan continued to criticize provincial public health measures that were placing her patients at risk.
When Kaplan-Myrth invited her to speak at the Feb. 11 digital roundtable, Tan felt like someone was finally paying attention to her concerns.
“I wasn’t anticipating how proud [of] a Canadian moment it was for me to be sitting on a virtual roundtable with [the prime minister],” she said. “I felt listened to personally—I felt like the group was listened to.”
Tan only had two minutes to voice her concerns before the roundtable moved on to another speaker, and she was determined to bring the prime minister’s attention to the inequities of the federal government’s vaccine distribution framework—most notably concerning racialized Canadians.
“I firmly believe all COVID-19 solutions have to be equitable and [have] an anti-racist lens,” she said. “Age alone is a very important risk factor, but it’s not the only one, and we need to stop pretending in Canada that those disparities don’t exist.”
On Feb. 15, four days after the roundtable, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), the body that makes recommendations for Canada’s vaccine rollout, released new vaccine priority guidelines.
Its recommendations for Stage 2 of Canada’s vaccination schedule noted certain key demographics to receive vaccines. Among those groups were Indigenous adults and adults in racialized communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
While NACI’s December recommendations for Stage 1 of the vaccine rollout included Indigenous adults as an at-risk community, these new guidelines are more focused on equitable vaccine delivery than before.
Tan said these federal recommendations are a good sign. However, she fears they won’t be implemented equitably at the provincial level because each province’s government is approaching vaccine distribution in different ways.
“There’s a disparity across the country,” she said.
“We’re all facing the same threat, and every province is reinventing the wheel.”
Getting everyone a seat at the table
Physicians aren’t the only healthcare professionals using social media to their advantage. Amie Archibald-Varley, a registered nurse in the Greater Toronto Area, knows the power of digital platforms for raising awareness.
“Twitter was very helpful in being able to […] bring light to an area that hasn’t been represented very clearly in mainstream media, which is nursing,” she explained in an interview with The Pigeon.
In Jan. 2021, Archibald-Varley started using the site as a platform for her advocacy work and to promote The Gritty Nurse, a podcast about nursing and social justice that she co-hosts with fellow nurse Sara Fung.
She said one of the reasons she continues to be outspoken on issues facing nurses is that the profession isn’t represented adequately in media. The COVID-19 pandemic means medical professionals are more public-facing than ever, but Archibald-Varley said physicians are being given a disproportionate amount of screen time.
“Physicians are always on the news,” she said. “It’s always a physician talking.”
“Myself and Sarah [Fung] said, ‘Clearly the nurses are the backbone of healthcare […] we should be heard too.’”
While Archibald-Varley was initially invited to speak at the Feb. 11 roundtable, Kaplan-Myrth later asked her to co-moderate the event.
Archibald-Varley said she felt pressure to live up to her role as co-moderator, not just as one of the only nurses at the roundtable, but as a Black woman working in healthcare.
“Representation matters,” she said. “It matters for other people [and] for my children to see that there are people that look like me in these different roles.”
Although she didn’t have the chance to speak, Archibald-Varley said she was thankful for the opportunity to guide the discussion.
When asked what she would have said to Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Hajdu if given the chance, she reinforced the importance of listening to the valuable perspectives of nurses, especially during the pandemic.
“We are highly intelligent [and] we have something different to say than physicians,” she explained. “We have a different lens and a different scope of practice […] And that perspective can lead to other forms of change.”
“We can’t capture [the big picture] if we don’t have the right people sitting at the table.”
Moving forward amidst a ‘national crisis’
Looking back on the Feb. 11 event, Kaplan-Myrth is optimistic that the federal government will take her and her colleagues’ concerns into account. She said the two officials’ behaviour during the roundtable was promising.
“They answered the questions much more genuinely than what was expected,” she explained. “People expected them to just dance around answers […] as opposed to really addressing what we were saying.”
“We feel like there are actually people who have some power who are listening to us.”
In an email to The Pigeon, Alex Wellstead, press secretary for the prime minister’s office, reiterated Trudeau’s concluding statements in the roundtable.
“It is extraordinarily inspirational to me to be able to spend a little time hearing you and seeing the continued fire, the continued drive, the continued commitment, and the continued willingness to keep pushing hard,” the prime minister said during the livestream.
When asked if Prime Minister Trudeau would be open to attending similar roundtables in the future, Wellstead stated that engaging with frontline healthcare workers is a priority.
“We take part in many virtual events with Canadians across the country, including many events with frontline healthcare workers,” he wrote. “Of course, [we] will continue to do so to ensure we are hearing directly from them during this global pandemic.”
A representative for the health minister told The Pigeon in an email that Minister Hajdu appreciated being able to attend the roundtable and hear from health professionals from different backgrounds.
“The Minister was pleased to discuss national standards for long-term care, the need to ensure every Canadian has access to a primary healthcare provider, and the importance of protecting those most vulnerable from COVID-19,” the statement reads. “She is always open to opportunities to engage with Canadians on issues important to health and wellness.”
While many of the points raised in the livestream discussion related to provincially-regulated health measures, such as vaccine distribution and the treatment of frontline workers, Kaplan-Myrth said being able to speak in a forum with the prime minister reinforces the need for a united Canadian response to COVID-19.
“It’s a federal right to have health care,” she said. “That is a basic promise to Canadians, that we’ll have health care.”
“If we’re failing to deliver that health care, then I see that as a national crisis.”