Why the reluctance among some ethnic minorities to have Covid jabs?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th February, 2021)

Jama is a driver who, before the pandemic, ferried people but he now delivers parcels. He is a Somali man in his 60s with diabetes, so at a high risk of dying if he catches Covid-19. Yet he has not taken the jab that could save his life.

‘A lot of people think this vaccination kills them after one year,’ he told me. ‘No one is saying if it is really OK or if it is killing people. There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.’

The idea that millions of people are being injected with something that will cause them to die next year sounds like the plot of a horror film. But Jama is among frightening numbers of citizens who fall for this sort of rubbish.

He told me his concerns were strengthened after talking to an official at a London vaccination centre and discovering the jabs do not guarantee total immunity. ‘My wife has not done it, my friends have not done it – people want to know it is safe,’ he said.

Some believe the authorities are inserting tracking microchips in our bodies or they have more rational fears over fertility and the speed of vaccine development. Others still do not think the virus is a serious threat – despite 2.5 million deaths worldwide.

Yet these crazy conspiracy theories, a deep suspicion of authorities and the selfish refusal of some to see the collective need to protect society threaten all of our hopes of escaping the pandemic.

Despite 19 million Britons receiving their first doses, a sufficient proportion of the population must be jabbed and protected against the disease – perhaps 80 per cent – to stymie the virus’s spread.

Experts fear that if one in five adults – or one in ten of the vulnerable people – reject vaccination, social distancing might have to be retained. So it is a simple equation: no return to normal humanity unless enough of us have jabs.

‘Even at 85 per cent efficacy and 85 per cent penetration, that is only 72 per cent of people protected. Add to those all the children not being given injections and that leaves a lot of humans for the virus to survive in and infect,’ said one official source.

Amid this issue lies a conundrum: ethnic minorities, who have been hit disproportionately hard by the disease, seem to have the highest levels of hesitancy or scepticism about the vaccines.

Before the pandemic, black Britons were generally much less likely to be vaccinated against diseases. Now polls find they are the most likely citizens to be hesitant over Covid jabs, followed by people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage.

London has the lowest vaccination rates along with other areas containing higher proportions of ethnic minorities. These tend to be younger and more deprived, a significant factor slowing take-up.

‘Sadly, there is a lot of dangerous misinformation making some Londoners hesitant and there are concerns among some communities,’ said London Mayor Sadiq Khan, an asthmatic who received the jab earlier this month.

‘We have to acknowledge that many of these communities are not anti-vaxxers, they’re not Covid deniers, they’re not people who advocate conspiracy theories. But for legitimate reasons they lack confidence in people in power and influence.’

To discover the truth behind these complex issues, I went to Harrow, a highly diverse borough in North-West London which is home to 200,000 adults.

It has some of the highest vaccination rates in the capital with 60,000 jabbed residents, including more than nine in ten of those in their 70s and three-quarters of the 23,000 people deemed vulnerable.

The biggest ethnic minority group is Indian, often well-established after several decades with thriving third and fourth generations.

Its vaccination rates are slightly higher than for white residents, according to figures – yet almost twice those of black Harrow residents. The biggest such community – with about 10,000 people – is Somali. It includes people such as Jama and Hibo Yusuf, 39, a carer and mother of four.

Despite her frontline job working with elderly people, Hibo refused the vaccine – spooked by conspiracy theory videos shared among her friends and family on social media and messaging apps.

‘I saw an African-American nurse who had the vaccination and had a stroke three days later. There was another nurse who passed away. So I was confused and thought this was no good,’ she said.

She has since changed her mind, wanting to travel in the summer and having seen many receive the jab. ‘Also, the people I work with are vulnerable, so I realised I should think of them and not just myself,’ she added.

Hibo is infuriated by social media giants permitting promotion of falsehoods: ‘It should be stopped. It is so dangerous when we have a virus that is risky to have all these things being seen by people.’

Her anger is shared by Hinda Ahmed, who has been sent crank videos claiming the disease is a con with footage of empty wards. Yet the 36-year-old hospital nurse has seen the terrible impact of Covid in her workplace.

‘If you don’t believe it’s much of a problem, you won’t feel you need a vaccine,’ she said. ‘I get exhausted trying to persuade people in the community.’

She has persuaded dozens of fellow Somalis to overcome their fears – although sceptics still include her aunt, who is in her 80s. ‘She does not speak English and thinks she is safe.’

Ahmed believes many older Somalis live in a similar bubble, informed by Somali media – filled with images from Africa of life carrying on as normal – along with alarmist videos and taped messages shared on WhatsApp.

‘If people claim the Government is trying to wipe out ethnic minorities by giving them the vaccine, I tell them that they must be very stupid to start with doctors and nurses,’ said Ahmed.

She responded to one elderly woman who believes that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is using the pandemic to implant trackable microchips by asking why the billionaire ‘would want to watch her sitting in front of her telly all day’.

Yet however daft such concerns, they demonstrate profound issues in a pandemic.

A survey by the Harrow Association of Somali Voluntary Organisations suggested only half of Somalis plan to take the vaccine – even though more than three-quarters knew someone who had died from the disease and barely any doubted its dangers. The organisers admit being shocked by the findings. ‘We thought it might be 20 per cent not wanting the vaccine,’ said Yusuf Yusuf, the group’s co-ordinator.

Now the association is fighting to counter such fears along with local mosques, which have invited doctors to speak at prayer meetings and promoted views from imams endorsing vaccines.

Focus groups have discovered unexpected issues – such as the legacy of prominent local figures who were admitted unaccompanied to hospital after falling sick with the virus and then never seen alive again.

‘Normally we take it for granted that people trust the NHS but some Somalis don’t because they think people going into hospitals are being euthanised,’ said Carole Furlong, director of public health at Harrow Council.

Yet even allowing for the corrosive influence of social media, and perhaps weak integration of some first-generation migrants, why do such fears and conspiracy theories take strongest root in some communities?

One issue I heard repeatedly was the lack of trust: in an NHS that has so many ethnic minority staff in low-paid jobs but so few in senior posts, and in politicians and public services felt to have failed the black community.

Furlong said the Windrush scandal, which saw scores of elderly citizens originally from the Caribbean accused of illegal entry and wrongly deported, came up frequently in their focus groups. ‘They say why should we trust the Government?’ she said.

Other issues raised with me ranged from the dreadful history of medical experimentation on Africans and slaves, through to Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of a US police killing, which sparked wide debate over equality and human rights.

Even the well-meaning suggestion that ethnic minorities might be prioritised for vaccines, given their high fatality rates, was subject to misinterpretation in some quarters: that they were being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs.

‘The vaccine is a proxy for many other issues of how people are being treated in society,’ said Patrick Vernon, a prominent social justice campaigner and former NHS trust director.

Like others trying to promote vaccination, Dr Vernon posted pictures of himself receiving his injection on his social media accounts, getting more than 50,000 views.

Such figures are dwarfed, however, by the numbers following some major music stars who spout anti-vaccination nonsense. ‘When they say the way we’re going to fix Covid is with a vaccine, I’m extremely cautious,’ said Kanye West. ‘That’s the mark of the beast. They want to put chips inside of us.’

To counter fears, Whitehall is using new software that can monitor uptake rates by postcode. ‘We have noticed a tsunami of misinformation on social media about fertility that is targeting younger ethnic minority women,’ said one source.

Last year, the Center for Countering Digital Hate reported 649 social media posts spreading pandemic misinformation in little more than one month – yet fewer than one in ten were removed by the firms.

The US and UK-based campaign group has highlighted how a few key figures in the toxic campaign against childhood vaccinations – all with big social media followings – have used Covid to extend influence and boost earnings, which come from advertising on YouTube and sales of ‘alternative health’ products.

‘The pandemic has given them the chance to reach a much wider group of concerned people looking for health advice,’ said Imran Ahmed, the chief executive.

His group’s research even discovered anti-vaccination activists on Facebook sharing a nine-point document containing arguments and historical anecdotes designed to fuel concerns among black families about the safety of jabs.

The desire to challenge such destructive messages is plain in Bradford Central Mosque, which was being used as a vaccination centre as a way to encourage take-up in ethnic minority communities. ‘We have fought fake news, challenged conspiracy theories and worked hard to raise awareness of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. But misinformation has made people apprehensive, scared and disillusioned,’ said Zulfiqar Karim, president of the Bradford Council for Mosques.

Having been hit hard by the pandemic, he said: ‘The vaccine is our lifeline and everyone should protect themselves, their loved ones and the community.’

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