Battling vaccine misinformation, mistrust and systemic failure in Britain’s minority communities

Volunteers in neon vests stand out against the white stone Hindu temple in North London where they check people in for vaccine appointments. The Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Kingsbury was the first temple turned mass vaccination clinic in the world and is part of the United Kingdom’s effort to target specific communities in its ambitious rollout plan. 

“The older people who generally do attend this temple, I think they feel a lot more safe with the faces that they’re used to,” said volunteer Mayur Patel.

“There’s a level of trust with the community, so they know the community is not going to give them false information.” 

Surindar Kunar, who arrived for her appointment with a plastic face shield for protection, said she knows vaccines are good because she was a nurse. 

However, she has heard from others who are concerned about getting vaccinated. 

“They’re afraid of complications and worry in case after the vaccine something goes wrong.” 

Former nurse Surindar Kunar is one of about 1,000 people a day getting vaccinated at the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Kingsbury in North London. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC News)

Public health officials are concerned about vaccine hesitancy in the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, known as BAME in the U.K. 

A survey from the Royal Society for Public Health, showed 57 per cent of people from BAME backgrounds and 79 per cent of white respondents would take the vaccine. The poll was conducted by London-based consultancy company Yonder between Dec. 4 and Dec. 6, with a representative online sample of 2,076 U.K. adults.

Addressing community concerns

Temple trustee Dr. Mahesh Varsani said the hope is that the vaccination centre will help people to remove the stigma, false messaging and taboos in the community. 

Varsani said the most common misconception he hears is that the vaccine isn’t vegetarian, which is false.

“Our spiritual leader has sent a message and he is advocating everyone, when it’s their opportunity, must take the vaccine.”

And Varsani said messages like this are getting through to people.

Dr. Mahesh Varsani helped organize the temple clinic, and said it took less than a week to get it up and running. ( Jean-François Bisson/CBC News)

Vaccination clinics have also been set up in U.K. mosques, including one in Birmingham, about 190 kilometres northwest of London.

Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, a scholar at Birmingham’s Clifton Road Mosque, said the move shows that vaccination “is in line with the teachings of Islam.”

“We are saying a big ‘no’ to fake news, and … we are saying a big ‘yes’ to vaccines.”

More than 12.8 million people have been vaccinated in the U.K., making it a leader in the world. But the pandemic has been devastating in the country, taking more than 113,000 lives — a disproportionate amount of them from minority communities.  

The country, with a population of about 67 million, plans to vaccinate 15 million people, those deemed most at risk of dying of COVID-19, by mid-February. After that, the government will target people aged 50 and over, along with those who have underlying health conditions. From the spring onwards, they’ll begin vaccinating the rest of the adult population, which make up about 21 million people. 

Celebrity endorsements

Claudia Webbe, an independent MP for Leicester East, about 170 kilometres northwest of London, urged people in the Black community to get vaccinated in a cross-party video posted online.

A video with a similar message was put together by South Asian celebrities, which included former Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati and cricketer Moeen Ali.

Shamaila Anwar, an analyst with the National Institute of Health Research and part of Team Halo, a network of health professionals sharing information and debunking myths about COVID vaccines on social media, said it was “brilliant” to have prominent people lending their voice to online campaigns.

In posts on TikTok she addressed concerns she has heard from the British Pakistani Muslim community such as: Is the vaccine Halal? It is, she said. Does it affect fertility? There is no evidence to show it does.

“We are duty bound to not only support ourselves in our vaccine journey, but also others.” 

However some believe it’s a lack of trust in the system, rather than misinformation, that’s keeping people from getting vaccinated. 

A man waits to receive the coronavirus vaccine, at the Al-Abbas Islamic Centre, in Birmingham, about 190 km northwest of London. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

Halima Begum, director of the London-based Runnymede Trust, a group that advocates for racial equality, said: “For 10 months we have not seen our communities prioritised, and as soon as the vaccine is ready we now hear rhetoric about hesitance and reluctance.” 

Begum said the larger issue is that the government has not prioritised Black and minority ethnic communities in their vaccine rollout plan, despite a higher infection rate. 

“The vaccination policy in my mind is unethical, because if you just apply it on age, you are not acknowledging the risk and the exposure of Black and minority groups.” 

WATCH | A Hindu temple has been turned into a vaccination centre: 

The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world. But on the ground, getting the shots into people’s arms isn’t always an easy task. We look at why vaccine hesitancy is a concern particularly in racialized communities. 2:01

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