An Indian British woman wears a face mask and receives a shot in her arm with someone wearing purple gloves.

COVID-19

British celebs, religious leaders fight vaccine hesitancy in minorities

The coronavirus death toll is higher in minority communities as many are working front-line jobs. Health inequalities, housing conditions and structural racism are also key factors. 

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Dr. PJ Suresh injects a patient with the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the Fullwell Cross Medical Center in London, Jan. 29, 2021. Local leaders in the borough of Redbridge are racing to reach out to minority communities, where people are often less likely to come forward to be inoculated. 

Credit:

Frank Augstein/AP

Amid heightened vaccine hesitancy in Britain’s minority communities, comedians, singers and TV personalities there collaborated on a new video to encourage all ethnic groups to take the coronavirus vaccine. 

It’s the second time well-known figures in the UK have come together in recent weeks to persuade these communities to get vaccinated. 

Related: South Africa changes course on vaccine rollout after disappointing study

Black politicians from across the political divide united in an online video last month with a similar message after a survey showed that 72% of Black people in Britain said they would be unlikely to get the jab. 

MP David Lammy poses outdoors for a photo wearing a dark suit and white button shirt

London Member of Parliament David Lammy said he’s seen vaccine hesitancy in his own family. 

Credit:

Courtesy of David Lammy 

London Member of Parliament David Lammy, who took part in the politicians’ video, said he’s not surprised by the survey findings because he’s seen this hesitancy in his own family. 

“I had been in touch with relatives who are in their 80s and 70s to ask them if they had taken the vaccine and many of them were coming back and saying, no, they weren't sure they wanted it," Lammy said. 

Related: Dr. Anthony Fauci: Pandemic will end with vaccination, 'solidarity'

Lammy’s uncle died in New York last year after contracting the coronavirus. The lawmaker watched the funeral over Zoom, which he said was deeply depressing. And his uncle is just one of many people he knows who has died from the disease.

“I've lost an old school friend, a classmate and many people in the local mosques have lost their lives. You know, there's a lot of grief in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities here in the UK, where it's now become virtually impossible not to know someone who has lost their life." 

David Lammy, member of Parliament, London, England

“I've lost an old school friend, a classmate and many people in the local mosques have lost their lives. You know, there's a lot of grief in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities here in the UK, where it's now become virtually impossible not to know someone who has lost their life," Lammy said. 

Related: An immunologist answers 3 questions about COVID-19 vaccine

Minorities in Britain have been hit hard by the pandemic. The death toll is higher among these communities partly due to the fact that many are working frontl-ine jobs. But health inequalities, housing conditions and structural racism are all key factors. 

Now, anxiety about the vaccine is adding to the concern. New research shows that vaccine uptake is so far lower among Britain’s Black and Asian communities than the rest of the population —  71% versus 86%. 

Dr. Winston Morgan is a professor in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at the University of East London.

Dr. Winston Morgan is a professor in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at the University of East London.

Credit:

Courtesy of Dr. Winston Morgan 

The reasons behind the slow uptake are not yet clear. Dr. Winston Morgan, a professor in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at the University of East London, said vaccine hesitancy is a real problem and the causes are complex. 

Mistrust in the medical profession is a definite factor. There are plenty of historical examples of abuse of Black people in scientific trials, Morgan said. But there are enough present-day examples, too, of poor health care provision within the community, Morgan said. 

“Most people will have a story of someone in their family or themselves engaging with the medical profession in some way and not having a nice experience or having a bad experience based on discrimination or bias.”

Dr. Winston Morgan, toxicology and clinical biochemistry professor, University of East London

“Most people will have a story of someone in their family or themselves engaging with the medical profession in some way and not having a nice experience or having a bad experience based on discrimination or bias.” 

Black women in Britain are four times likelier than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth, a report in January revealed. Poverty, racism and domestic abuse all play a part, the report found. Morgan said findings like this are familiar within the Black community and add to people’s fears. He believes part of the reluctance is also “a demonstration of agency.” 

“They're saying, 'Give me all the information you have and then I'll take it,' rather than you saying I have to take it.” 

Morgan said for a long time, Black people “trusted the system and relied on the system to protect them and it didn't do that, it didn’t protect them,” he said. “They want to take their time to make a decision on whether they can now trust the health care providers.” 

Lack of representation among health care leaders, scientists and government figures is also an issue, he said. 

“Fundamentally, people need to be part of the system as professionals, not just as customers or users, so they need to be part of the hierarchy. People need to see people who look like them in serious positions.”

Birmingham general practitioner Dr. Anita Raja is acutely aware of this problem. Born to an Afghan mother and Pakistani father, Raja speaks multiple languages including Urdu, Punjabi and Persian. 

Raja notices her surgery attracts many Urdu- and Punjabi-speaking patients and believes they come to her because she can speak to them in their native language. She said it’s crucial that  information about the vaccine is available in different languages. Some patients won’t speak to doctors about their concerns because they are afraid they won’t be understood, Raja said.

“We've got a huge Bangladeshi, Pakistani community here. And yes, I must say they are reluctant to take the vaccine. They do not want to speak to their doctor because they feel that they might not be heard and might not be understood.”

Dr. Anita Raja, general practioner, Birmingham, England

A woman wearing a blue top and jeans poses on a bench outdoors in front of a Ferris wheel.

Birmingham general practitioner Dr. Anita Raja is acutely aware of vaccine hesitancy in her patients. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Dr. Anita Raja

“We've got a huge Bangladeshi, Pakistani community here. And yes, I must say they are reluctant to take the vaccine. They do not want to speak to their doctor because they feel that they might not be heard and might not be understood.” 

Raja released a video in Urdu on social media to explain the vaccine and Britain’s rollout program. She has heard all the conspiracy theories, too, — even from family members. Raja’s mother told her she was reluctant to get the shot because she was worried about the speed in which the vaccine was produced and had heard the myth about it altering DNA. 

Raja said she managed to allay her mother’s fears but said it shows the prevalence of high anxiety in many minority communities. 

Imams across Britain have also tried to ease fears among their communities. In mid-January, they delivered a sermon during Friday prayers across many mosques urging worshippers to get vaccinated. Some mosques have been turned into pop-up vaccination centers in a further attempt to persuade communities to get the jab. 

In Birmingham, leaders of various faiths have come together to discuss how they can best approach the issue. Pastor Emmanuel Adeseko, with New Covenant Ministries, said he has heard plenty of hesitancy among his congregation. But he said he is mindful not to dismiss people’s concerns.

“I've had scenarios where some people have said to me, ‘listen, I don't want to take the vaccine.’ And I said, “OK, that's fine, the door is open if you want to have a conversation.” Because we don't want to be burning bridges in a time where we need every single citizen to be able to work together.”

Emmanuel Adeseko, pastor, New Covenant Ministries

“I've had scenarios where some people have said to me, ‘Listen, I don't want to take the vaccine.’ And I said, “OK, that's fine, the door is open if you want to have a conversation.” Because we don't want to be burning bridges in a time where we need every single citizen to be able to work together.” 

 Pastor Emmanuel Adeseko with New Covenant Ministries

Pastor Emmanuel Adeseko, with New Covenant Ministries, says he has heard plenty of hesitancy among his congregation. But he says he is mindful not to dismiss people’s concerns.

Credit:

Courtesy of  Pastor Emmanuel Adeseko

For Adeseko, the issue is also personal. His father, Nathaniel, died from the coronavirus in Birmingham, last April. Adeseko said his father was a healthy 65-year-old man and his death came as a huge shock.

“It was a very painful experience and it’s still something I'm having to work through, you know, even now.”

Adeseko is hopeful that all the coordinated efforts between religious leaders will have an effect. 

MP Lammy said he believes the campaigns are having an impact but also that there’s more to do. 

The largest hospital trust in England reported recently that uptake of the vaccine among its Black African, Black Caribbean and Filipino staff has been much lower than other health care workers. 

Without all these communities on board, Lammy said, Britain can never truly hope to get a handle on the pandemic.

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