Back in May, I posted a picture to my Instagram Stories of myself waiting in line for my first dose of Moderna with the caption: hoping that soon vaccine lines will be airport lines. In the throes of my pandemic fatigue, and having had the privilege of being well-insulated from the effects of the pandemic, I was eager for “normal life” to resume already. There were never any doubts about whether or not I was going to be vaccinated. I wasn’t so much putting my trust in the government as I was in science. I believed, still believe, that the benefits far exceed the risks.
But for many other Black Canadians, the decision isn’t as simple. Ten months into a national vaccine rollout, as employers and provinces mandate vaccination passports and amidst a fourth wave, Black Canadians have remained the most vaccine-hesitant group. As of June, 33% of the adult Black population reported vaccine hesitancy to some degree, significantly higher than the 19% of the white population and 25% of non-Black people of colour. But it is not without reason.
Canada’s racist healthcare system
A dark history of Black people being robbed of their bodily autonomy, decades of systemic anti-Black racism, and a healthcare system riddled with racial disparities such as lower access and poorer treatment outcomes have resulted in an inherent distrust towards the government. Distrust that COVID has only made worse. The lives and livelihoods of Black Canadians have been, and continue to be, disproportionately affected by the pandemic: August 2020 data from the City of Toronto found that 33% of Toronto’s reported cases were Black. By October, mortality rates were almost twice as high in neighbourhoods where the visible minority population was 25% or more, according to Statistics Canada. As they faced down the virus, Black Canadians were also facing economic challenges: 56% of Black Canadians had reported being laid off or reduced working hours. And 45% were worried about being able to pay rent. It became glaringly obvious that we were not all in this together.
I spoke to Black Canadians who are choosing not to get the vaccine, despite living with the on-going effects of the pandemic. Like Nickeisha Dickenson*, who had to close her cosmetic tattoo boutique in Toronto for months, and previously contracted COVID-19. Her concern is that political leaders "along with mainstream media, aren’t being honest" about the efficacy of the vaccine and the number of hospitalizations and deaths. For Teneice Townsend, a Brampton, ON.-based full-time student and mother, she questions whether or not the government and public health officials have Black Canadians’ best interests at heart at all. She also worries about the potential long-term side effects of the vaccine, saying “it’s hard to believe the science behind it when it’s such a new vaccine.”
Black Canadians also have to wade through a barrage of ever-changing information, and oftentimes misinformation, from unreliable sources, including social media, like Nicki Minaj’s recent tweet where she claimed her cousin’s friend had suffered testicular swelling as a result of the vaccine. This has proven to be a major roadblock in the vaccination rollout.
And I get it. I know now how exhausting it can be to be Black in a country where you were never meant to thrive. To exist within a system where Blackness is maligned. To see feigned interest in Black lives evaporate with yesterday’s weather. I know that the needs of Black Canadians have never been a priority. Which is why conversations with loved ones about the importance of trusting science can, and have been, tense. And often end in stalemate.
The way forward
As extreme measures to drive vaccination rates fail to gain traction, there are calls for the government and public health officials to make a concerted effort to address the concerns of Black Canadians. Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University, believes the term “vaccine hesitancy” is a misnomer. And one that minimizes the accountability for leaders to acknowledge that “because of the history of anti-Black racism in medicine, medical practice and healthcare systems, there is this well-developed mistrust and distrust of health,” she tells Refinery29 Canada.
Dryden believes that in order to alleviate some of the concerns of Black Canadians, leaders need to first acknowledge and accept responsibility for the systematic harm that Black and other marginalized people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in this country, such as anti-Black racism and police brutality. She says that though establishing trust is not a short-term goal, there are steps the government can take to show good faith: Like identifying how how the interests of marginalized communities can be heeded differently this time around, which includes providing them with the tools and resources to be on the frontlines of vaccination efforts.
For instance, Dryden says that grassroots organizations that are doing work to roll out vaccines should be fully government funded. She says governments also need to step up support and fund efforts already being made by Black organizations such as setting up vaccination clinics and organizing town halls. “We won’t get to everybody but more can be done to get to more people,” she says.
Paul Bailey, executive director of the Black Health Alliance, on the other hand, believes in a more targeted approach to addressing low vaccine confidence and weeding out misinformation that arises repeatedly, like for instance, Townsend’s worry about the newness of the vaccine. (Despite the common perception that the vaccine was created overnight, the mRNA technology used to develop the Covid-19 vaccines has evolved over 30 years and is backed by hundreds of thousands of hours of research.)
He says it is important for governments to fund and work alongside local partners to support culturally specific campaigns and outreach, whether through community town halls or more ‘on-the-ground’ engagement in places like barbershops, grocery stores, or churches.
Now, some two months following my second dose of Moderna, I have since taken my first pandemic-era international trip. But even so, I can’t help but feel that life is still not quite normal. And perhaps, it never will be again. Most of my family remains unvaccinated. And as vaccine passports become mandatory, I worry that they and many Black Canadians will once again bear the brunt of systemic racism. They are perhaps more distrustful than ever. And in all honesty, I can’t say that I blame them.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.