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Access to COVID-19 vaccines a challenge in BIPOC communities. Here’s why

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Black, Indigenous and people of colour are some of the hardest-hit communities in the pandemic, but experts say the government’s mostly Eurocentric messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine is not effectively reaching racialized populations.

Experts and advocates, including Chris Sorio, secretary-general at Migrante BC, a non-profit organization for Filipinos, say it’s important to educate racialized communities about the importance of a vaccine, help clear misconceptions, and take into consideration their views and history of access to health care.

Racialized people, who make up almost 22 per cent of Canada’s total population, according to Statistics Canada, have been impacted the most by COVID-19 due to overcrowded work facilities and inadequate access to health care, food, housing and transportation.

Sorio, alongside his team, is working on an educational campaign to ensure people have awareness and confidence about information related to vaccines and COVID-19.

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Read more: COVID-19 exposes gaps in language education — why there needs to be increased support

“Our biggest challenge, as an organization, is to ensure information related to COVID-19 and vaccines is available in different languages, not just English and French. If health-care workers will not receive cultural sensitivity training or be unable to provide translations in different languages, people will become hesitant towards the process,” he said.

Sorio believes that due to the history of inadequate health-care access for racialized communities, they should have the option to choose a vaccine, especially for those hesitant towards vaccines. An exclusive Ipsos poll for Global News revealed that Canadians have echoed the same sentiment as Sorio.

The data showed that 64 per cent of Canadians are likely to get vaccinated depending on the vaccine offered to them, while eight in 10 respondents say they should have the option to choose their preferred vaccine.

The Globe and Mail reported Friday that some racialized Canadians who speak a language other than English and French have been volunteering to help translate important COVID-19-related information. This information includes vaccine availability, whether people can choose a vaccine of choice and any concerns they might have regarding possible side effects, especially related to blood clots.

According to Statistics Canada, the most common languages spoken in the country other than English and French are Mandarin (7.7 per cent), Cantonese (7.4 per cent), Punjabi (6.8 per cent), Tagalog (6.4 per cent) and Spanish (6.2 per cent).

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A Toronto Public Health (TPH) representative told Global News via email that the city has created an extensive equity strategy that will help it address language, vaccine hesitancy and availability concerns across the “disproportionately impacted” BIPOC communities.

Although the government has added various language options on the main page of the city’s website to make navigation easy for the public, it acknowledges the challenges for those unable to access information online.

Read more: ‘I’ve felt discrimination’ — Black leaders in the medical community call for change

“As part of our equity strategy, $5.5M has been provided to consortiums of community organizations, resident and faith-based groups to collaborate (with the city) across 140 neighbourhoods in Toronto. Community ambassadors are being recruited to reflect on not just the city’s diversity but to support those in their community,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health.

While the governments of Saskatchewan and B.C. allow residents to access information in various languages, no extensive plan to address COVID-19 concerns among BIPOC communities, similar to TPH, is available online.

Karan Varshney, health science professional for Vancouver Coastal Health, agrees with Sorio’s suggestions.

“There may have been some resources that exist in other languages, but in my experience they haven’t been easily accessible to those who need it, making it largely pointless — the (lack) of (information) accessibility for people in Hindi/Punjabi has led them to rely on word of mouth or social media, which has led to the dissemination of misinformation.”

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He believes that if public health officials distribute information in Hindi and Punjabi, it will benefit South-Asian seniors like his parents, and provide important information related to the vaccination rollout, which they are receiving through people rather than officials.

“It feels like there’s an expectation that people will know (about the vaccinations) and they will get it, they’ll find the information themselves, but the reality is there are a lot of people who have no understanding of what’s going on, whatsoever.”

Vaccination locations not ideal for BIPOC communities

Teresa Torralba, 61, wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible because she has lupus, an autoimmune disease, which puts her at a higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19.

A resident of Brampton, Ont., Torralba said the process to get an appointment was exhausting and, at times, made her feel hopeless.

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“I was discouraged at first because of the news about long lineups, and after a full day of calls I almost gave up… I said to myself, ‘One of them has to pick up, I don’t care. I will go wherever I have to.’”

Torralba was able to book an appointment at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto’s Don Mills East York area — a 45-minute drive from her home.

But Torralba acknowledged that for someone who may not have access to a vehicle, public transit would’ve taken upwards of two hours.

Professor Marva Ferguson, a member of the Alberta Association for Black Social Workers, said people from BIPOC communities have been commuting, due to the nature of their work, and therefore twice as likely to commute via public transport than the rest of the Canadian population. This not only makes them more likely to contract COVID-19 but also makes it difficult for them to travel long distances for a vaccine.

“The vaccination should come to the people in their communities instead of expecting them to come to the location. They should be made available at convention centres, community centres and churches, where most of the community members live, so that they don’t have to travel across the city to get the vaccine. Not everybody can leave work and this is the basic understanding,” said Ferguson.

Read more: When it comes to vaccines, Canada needs to earn Indigenous, Black people’s trust

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On April 7 during a COVID-19 press conference, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province has a “targeted approach” to getting COVID-19 vaccine information to BIPOC communities, which includes going into high-priority neighbourhoods and places of worship.

Ferguson also highlighted that not only is varied information being circulated in communities but also, as Varshney noted earlier, people across Canada either don’t have access to technology or aren’t tech-savvy to access COVID-19 vaccine-related information online.

A 2018 digital equity and health report published by ACORN Canada reveals that households with low to moderate income use the internet to access health information such as to book medical appointments online and find recovery support from an illness at home.

These households also lack the skills to use the internet effectively, as indicated in 2019 report from the group. More than 28 per cent of the respondents shared that they were unable to complete a task online due to a lack of digital literacy and one in five said they had difficulty accessing health information online.

“Not all of us have the technology or are tech-savvy and as we’re working from home, those living in shared accommodation are having to fight for the same Wi-Fi and therefore, people are having trouble booking appointments and finding locations where they can get vaccinated. This is something governments at all different levels need to be aware of,” Ferguson said.

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In an email response to Global News about the lack of access to technology and/or residents not being tech-savvy, Toronto Public Health said, “The City is funding consortiums of community organizations to collaborate on vaccination efforts across Toronto neighbourhoods. Community agencies will establish Vaccine Engagement Teams as one piece of the City’s Immunization Community Engagement & Mobilization Plan, founded on the social determinants of health, to drive targeted equity actions for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, including tangible supports to vaccine access.”

According to the government of Canada’s official website, five vaccinations are available in Canada for the coronavirus, including Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

More than 14 million Canadians have been vaccinated as of publication time.

Ayesha Ghaffar is a South-Asian international student and writes passionately about BIPOC social justice issues. In her leisure time she watches dog videos online.

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