Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room doctor continues to advocate for masks in Alberta.
PHOTO: JOE VIPOND

Joe Vipond remembers growing up watching the classic television show M*A*S*H and its stories of battlefield doctors in South Korea. He imagined being in a fast-paced environment like the main character Hawkeye Pierce, a surgeon who was as skilled with his scalpel as he was with one-liners. Like Hawkeye, Vipond always found himself craving new experiences.

That drove him to Alberta’s badlands in his early twenties to work at Dinosaur Provincial Park where Vipond realized he had a need to help others. This feeling pulled him towards medicine, a career he says combines scientific exploration and practicality.

From there, Vipond toyed with the idea of working in isolated communities, but he chose emergency rooms instead. Since then, he’s become better known as an activist, protesting the federal government’s climate change policies. Now Vipond is fighting against the refusal to require masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Medical career

Vipond’s medical credentials have lent weight to that activism.  In the first five years of his career, he says he had to learn his way around the emergency room, teaching himself to expect something new every day.

“I’m still learning. [But now] if there’s something I don’t know, I’m very comfortable getting help.”

In his position in the emergency room, Vipond is known as a general physician, someone in the medical field who has no specific specialty.

“The specialists know their topic a mile deep and an inch wide, and the generalists know theirs an inch deep and a mile wide.”

Climate activism

In the last eight years, Vipond has increasingly become more involved in advocacy for preventing climate change. He realized how devastating the climate crisis could be after reading a book called The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery.

 “I’d just had my first child who’s got 90 years to live,” he explained. “So I start freaking out and spent the next five or six years just thinking about things.”

From there, Vipond decided to advocate against climate change and was invited to be a spokesperson by the Pembina Institute for the Alberta coal phase out movement.

He now dedicates his time to participating in two environmental advocacy groups, the Calgary Climate Hub and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“I realized you can make a big change when we are at risk. If our leaders aren’t going to do the work, then we citizens better step into their place.”

Vipond’s teenage daughter Sadie has also become a prominent climate activist herself.

Isolation

Unfortunately, Vipond had to take a step back from his career and activism in March when he suspected he had contracted COVID-19. 

“You have a little cough, and you have to think ‘oh is that the start of something?’ And you start anticipating the worst.”

Vipond says that uncertainty was nerve-racking.

It also required him to isolate for 10 days. This separated Vipond from his family and normal schedule, but as an emergency room physician who was at a high risk of contracting the virus and passing it to others, Vipond knew it was necessary to protect his loved ones and patients.

His test results eventually came back negative. But, during his isolation period, Vipond took the opportunity to learn how COVID-19 could be transmitted, the risk of asymptomatic carriers, and how wearing masks can greatly reduce the risk.

Masktivism

Vipond says in March, when public health leaders first addressed mask policies, wearing masks was actively discouraged.

“I thought that was inappropriate seeing the good [masking] success Asian societies had with COVID. [Alberta] was very late with masks.”

Vipond says masks were not a full-time requirement until mid-April in the emergency room he works in.

“I don’t think you can point to a jurisdiction in the world where voluntary measures have been enough in bending the curve.”

This led to Vipond connecting with other physicians and citizens who were fighting for more regulations on wearing masks across Canada. Following this, Masks4Canada was created.

Masks4Canada is a team of physicians and citizens working together with the government to advocate and educate people on the necessary precautions required when dealing with COVID-19.

“We quickly recognized that there was a role for an organization to coordinate communications and to coordinate advocacy,” says Vipond. “Because I had been actively pushing for climate action for many years, it wasn’t a big stretch to see the deficit in mask policy and apply some of the skills I have learned through climate advocacy.”

When Alberta’s second wave  of COVID-19 hit, he increased his activism, dedicating more time with Masks4Canada to educate people within his home province.

With Alberta well into the second wave of COVID-19, the Alberta government made masking mandatory in all indoor public spaces in December.

“We need to acknowledge that we’re all in this together, and part of that collective action is the simple act of wearing a face mask to protect others. It’s just kindness. Why not be kind?”