Mistrust of health system part of vaccine hesitancy in Black communities, advocates say

·4 min read
A recent report from Statistics Canada found that 77 per cent of Black Canadian respondents were “not very likely to take a vaccine.
A recent report from Statistics Canada found that 77 per cent of Black Canadian respondents were “not very likely to take a vaccine.

Advocacy groups in Alberta are hoping to overcome vaccine hesitancy in Black communities following a Statistics Canada report showing Black Canadians are less likely to get a vaccine than other groups.

The report, titled Year in Review, demonstrates the uneven effects of the pandemic on Canadians of different racial backgrounds. It found Black Canadians were the hardest hit by the pandemic — and the most reluctant to get vaccinated.

The review found that 49 per cent of Canadians were not very likely to get a vaccine. For Black Canadians, that number hit 77 per cent — around 20 points higher than Chinese, South Asian or white respondents.

Vaccine hesitancy follows a history of systemic racism within institutions, said Bukola Salami, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Alberta and board member with the Black Opportunity Fund.

On March 13, the BOF partnered with the Black North Initiative to host a town hall meeting to take questions from Black community members about vaccines.

"We want to be able to bridge that gap and decrease the level of mistrust of the system," Salami said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

"We have ethical issues and racist issues that Black people have experienced in the past that really, really affect your trust in the system and the ability and willingness to take the vaccine."

Bukola Salami is a associate professor of nursing at the University of Alberta.
Bukola Salami is a associate professor of nursing at the University of Alberta.(Submitted by Bukola Salami)

For example, during the town hall people wondered if vaccinations were part of an experiment similar to the Tuskegee syphilis study, Salami said.

Between 1932 and 1972, the United States Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told hundreds of Black men with syphilis in Alabama they were getting free public healthcare.

In fact, the subjects were not informed they had syphilis and did not receive any real treatment. By the time the experiment ended, 128 patients had died of syphilis or complications.

Salami said misinformation on social media also plays a part, referencing comments she's seen on Facebook groups for Black community members.

"Sometimes you wonder how the people actually think about this," she said, before adding there is a need to understand the effects of marginalization on people's willingness to accept certain narratives.

Around 400 people attended Saturday's event, Salami said, and there are plans to expand the effort to correct misinformation.

"At least we're making a dent," she said.

Need for localized data

Vaccine hesitancy comes from many quarters, including conspiracy theories that have taken hold in popular media, said Dr. Kannin Osei-Tutu, founder and president of the Black Physicians' Association of Alberta.

Established last November, the group has engaged in town halls in an effort to combat misinformation within Black communities.

"We're finding that to be the most effective strategy, given the limited resources we have available," Osei-Tutu said.

More unique to Black communities, is scepticism from religious leaders as well as mistrust of the medical community arising from historic and unethical experiments done on Black people, he said.

"Concerted education strategies around the safety and efficacy of the vaccines need to be rolled out and that can only happen in a coordinated fashion and in partnership with the provincial bodies," Osei-Tutu said.

Part of the problem is a lack of localized data as national statistics do not provide a clear path, he said.

"Without the data there, there is no policy that follows," he said. "And without the policy, there aren't resources that follow."

Salami notes that while this kind of data is collected and published in other jurisdictions like Toronto, the data for cities such as Edmonton is not publicly available.

The province is likely in the process of trying to establish a system but the gap puts efforts behind in targeting issues, she said.

"If you don't collect it, then you don't know how to solve it."

The province says it recognizes that racial, ethnic and socio-economic barriers can affect exposure and health outcomes of some Albertans.

Work is underway by Alberta Health to collect and analyze self-reported data on ethnicity and socioeconomic status, spokesperson Sherene Khaw said in a statement.

"This data requires further analysis before a decision is made on releasing it publicly," Khaw said.

"Long-term, we will continue exploring ways to effectively report the demographic data on race, ethnicity and socio-economic status of patients in the future," she said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.