As 39-year-old Gavin Cole patiently waited outside the Jamaican Canadian Association building in North York in the early hours of Saturday morning, he was just glad the day had finally arrived.
When he arrived shortly after 6 p.m., he was first in line for a weekend-long pop-up vaccine clinic targeting Toronto’s black community. Cole was one of many who had unsuccessfully tried for weeks to order a vaccine through the province’s online booking system.
“Honestly, I feel so relieved,” he said. “I have always been a supporter of health and tried to protect myself and my loved ones … And I am glad that so many people are standing in line here.”
The pop-up clinic is part of the Black Health Vaccine Initiative, a collaboration between the Black Physicians Association of Ontario (BPAO) and a number of local organizations serving GTA’s Black community. The events are open to all members of the black, African and Caribbean communities aged 18 and over, regardless of zip code.
The clinic’s doors did not open until 10.00, but just after kl. By 7 a.m., the line was already wrapping around the building. BPAO has been running pop-ups like this for weeks throughout the city to help combat low vaccination rates in a community already hard hit by COVID.
“I realized we really needed to get involved and try to improve the vaccination rate for the black community,” said Dr. David Esho, MD of the Black Health Vaccine Initiative and a member of the BPAO. “We believe our strength is partnering with agencies that have a long history of working in the black community, and then we can also provide support through education, advocacy and potential vaccination.”
Black Canadians have been disproportionately affected by COVID – especially in Toronto, the city with the country’s largest black population. February data from the city of Toronto found that we make up 9 percent of the city’s population, but represent 13 percent of admissions due to COVID (relatively white people make up 48 percent of the city and accounted for only 23 percent of admissions).
The reasons for this difference are well documented. First, black people in the city are usually overrepresented in insecure, significant work. Nearly one-third of employed black women (31.7 percent) worked in health care and social assistance in January 2021, compared to just 22.9 percent of white women. We are also more likely to live in multi-generational households and in denser, lower-income neighborhoods where the disease has spread more easily. These factors have made black Torontonians far more susceptible to the spread of the virus than our white counterparts.
On top of this, the spread of vaccines in the province has been a big mess, a trend that has affected the black community in its own unique way. In an astonishing April event, for example. Discovered that blacks and other racialized communities had been removed from the list of eligible for the province’s Phase 2 vaccine rollout.
“If we look at the hot-spot postcodes, those who have a large population in the black community are still seeing disproportionately lower vaccination rates and we have also been slower in getting to these communities, ”Esho said.
Early vaccination figures showed that the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID had a disproportionately low number of pharmacies offering the vaccine. Actual analysis of The local in April found that there was not a single pharmacy offering the vaccine in the five neighborhoods with the highest COVID infection rates in the city. In Black Creek, for example, where 29 percent of the population is black, there were a number of community pharmacies, but no one carried the vaccine.
“I think another problem could be the hours we often drive to vaccination clinics,” Esho said. “[They] Maybe these are not the times when people who have less flexibility in terms of working from home can get into a mass vaccination center to get vaccinated. ”
Even the process of trying to book a vaccination appointment through the province’s online system poses barriers for many seniors and others in the black community with limited online access and little time to navigate a labyrinthine phone reservation system.
“A number of seniors had access issues, they could not get an appointment,” said Adaoma Patterson, president of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA), which hosted the event over the weekend. “They’re not online, and then the wait on the phone is really long.”
Residence status can also raise questions regarding access to the vaccine. As of 2016, there were about 44,285 non-permanent black immigrants in Ontario, such as migrant workers.
“One of the other populations that the JCA in particular has been concerned about is migrant workers and farm workers because many of them are now here in season,” Patterson said. “They do not have access to information, and Wi-Fi is often a problem on farms because they are out in the countryside and in rural areas.”
But aside from pure access, many in Toronto’s black community simply do not feel safe receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Data from 2020 from the city of Toronto found that the highest vaccination distress in the city was among black people of African and Caribbean descent (about 30 percent); and there are reasons for this caution.
Black people have a historically charged relationship with medical institutions, including a long and disturbing history of being vigorously (or sometimes unknowingly) used as a guinea pig in a series of medical experiments. In addition, the daily racism that black people experience in the health care system. A 2021 study on anti-black racism in the Canadian medical system outlined the prevalence of this problem in our health structures and called for tangible solutions.
“There is a great deal of mistrust in our healthcare community for obvious reasons such as historical inequalities and even personal experiences that patients have had in the system to this day,” Esho said.
There are also a number of pretty basic questions that people in the black community want answered – by a trusted source – before taking the vaccine. Dr. Akwatu Khenti, chair of the Black Scientists Taskforce on Vaccine Equity, told me that residents asked about everything from which specific vaccine was administered, to whether clinical trials had involved black people or not, and whether the vaccine would be safe for people of African descent .
“We are tackling the will of the vaccine, because even though people are here [at the pop up]”When you go on the line and talk to people, you find that for some it’s still a question in their minds,” he said.
Floydeen Charles-Fridal, CEO of Caribbean African Canadian Social Services, says her agency has asked similar questions from residents of the community. “You hear from our seniors that they just do not have enough information, and when they get the information, it allows them to make a more informed decision,” she said.
This lack of information is something Patterson and JCA have tried to combat by hosting culturally sensitive information meetings, seminars and town halls. “We held a town hall for seniors who had questions and just wanted to talk to experts who looked like them, [who could] take the time to explain exactly what vaccines are and just answer questions they had, ”she said.
The oversized effect of COVID-19, poisoned by lower vaccination rates in the black community, means that it has been much more difficult to deal with the spread of the disease in a population that is already marginalized. And for the organizers of the vaccine clinics, their approach is a perfect match for these unique challenges.
Saturday’s event was an amalgamation of information session and vaccination clinic, and by the end of the weekend the group had administered 2,231 doses. That number will only continue to grow, Esho hopes. While planning several pop-up clinics, BPAO continues to operate a standing vaccination clinic in partnership with the Taibu Community Health Center in Scarborough and other community allies. BPAO doctors have successfully vaccinated about 250 people a day at this site, which is up to a total of about 2,350 vaccinations before last weekend’s event in JCA.
BPAO still maintains vaccine clinics in partnership with local organizations serving the black community, and groups such as JCA and CAFCAN continue to facilitate information meetings and find ways to reach members of their communities who may not have access.
“When people see themselves in the experts they talk to and from whom they receive service and care – and that we do so in a loving and culturally appropriate way – you see that the reaction is so much different,” Patterson said.
The on-site vaccination coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Vohra Miller Foundation.