By Lincoln DePradine
TORONTO, Ontario (Thursday, September 2,2021) — A call was made, by a group of Black health professionals, for the conducting of a “systematic public health education campaign’’, focusing on Black residents of Toronto, and other cities, across Ontario.
The campaign is needed to try and reverse “systemic racism, which has undermined Black trust in healthcare institutions,’’ according to members of the City of Toronto-appointed Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity.
“The campaign should promote anti-racism approaches that enhance inclusive and equitable healthcare and public health practices, aligned with the Black community,’’ the task force recommended, in a report, presented, in June, to the city’s Board of Health.
The mission of the task force, which is Chaired by Dr. Akwatu Khenti, was “to build community awareness of the disparities in COVID-19 positivity, hospitalization, and mortality rates, as well as the need for comprehensive prevention efforts, including knowledge of the various vaccines’’.
It had set, as part of its ultimate objectives, to “promote the health and well-being of Black Canadians in Toronto, through the pandemic, and to harness trusted community partners, health and medical professionals and academics to deliver fundamentals of vaccine development and immunization essentials’’.
Task force members hosted 20 online townhall meetings, from February 1 to June 9, reporting that “extensive effort’’ was made “to provide the most up-to-date evidence-based advice on the various facets of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as vaccines, especially addressing myths and misinformation’’.
The report to the Board of Health was accompanied by a letter to its Chairman, Toronto Councillor, Joe Cressy, from Khenti.
Khenti, a university professor with a PhD in health and policy equity, said the meetings allowed him and his team to “get a glimpse of the many community perspectives on the pandemic, as well as vaccine-related concerns’’.
Meeting participants, Khenti’s letter said, “reflected all of Toronto’s demographic diversities: ethnic, linguistic, religious, geographies, racial and intersectional identities. Also reflected were many occupational and student groups: academics, childcare workers, educators, farm workers, grocery clerks, health professionals – especially nurses and physicians, long term care staff, personal support workers, transportation workers, Black law enforcement workers and university students’’.
One of the positive outcomes of the meetings, said the report, was that “vaccine hesitancy was reduced by at least 25 percent among approximately 6785 participants in its 20 townhalls’’.
The report includes data on the negative impact of COVID-19 on African-Canadians, revealing that “members of Canada’s Black communities are more likely to be hospitalized with severe COVID-19 symptoms and to succumb to the disease than their fellow Canadians. These racialized risks are pertinent across income and education levels, as Black persons, at all socio-economic levels, have higher rates of chronic conditions (such as high blood pressure and asthma) than their White counterparts. These conditions make individuals vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illnesses’’.
As well, explains the report, “other social determinants’’ play, in part, on COVID’s severe impact on the population. Among the determinants are the number of Black people involved in “essential jobs’’; the numbers using public transport; Black people having poorer housing; living in poverty; and having “less access to health and social and public health pandemic protections’’.
However, to date, the “high mortality risks’’, facing Black people, “have not been effectively matched with necessary protections, such as immunization coverage to control virus spread’’, the report laments.
The Khenti-led task force has made a series of recommendations, including urging the rollout of public education messages to provide facts and “dispel myths and misinformation’’ about the Coronavirus and the COVID-19 vaccines. They also recommend that “Toronto’s efforts be bolstered with additional vaccine public education materials, tailored for high-risk communities and culturally specific populations’’.
As well, the task force wants “committed doses of vaccines to immunize Black people, delineated as being at disproportionate risk for severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalization, and death’’; and the continued “collecting and reporting, regularly, on race-based data, related to COVID-19, vaccination uptake, and other health matters. Such data collection should be expanded to other areas of socio-economic vulnerability during the post-pandemic period’’.
Among other recommendations – directed at the City of Toronto and the Ontario and federal governments – are a call on Toronto to “support priority door-to-door vaccine distribution to individuals in communities with significant technological, transportation and mobility barriers’’; the city’s backing of “walk-in vaccinations with simplified registration requirement’’; ensuring that vaccines are “set aside specifically for members of high-risk Black and racialized communities, given past history of Black-serving clinics running out of vaccines and having to close, ahead of schedule’’; the city putting in place safeguards to “sustain mental wellness checks and case management services, through trusted community partners, for at least two years after the pandemic’’, and that “culturally sensitive online and telephone services should also be maintained for a post-pandemic, two-year period’’.
“The Task Force also calls on the City of Toronto to develop a mental health strategy for its Black communities,’’ says the report. “We recommend a parallel rollout of public health education, and resources, across the City of Toronto to educate Black residents about intersecting mental health and racial stigma risks, especially potential mental health problems among children and youth. Such evidence-based programming could reduce the stigma of mental health illnesses and care seeking.
“These efforts are needed to reduce increasing disparities of mood and anxiety problems and provide a stimulus for Black people to protect their health, with priority accorded to children and youth.’’
The report delves deeply into the critical need for vaccinating people of African descent, not just in Toronto and Canada, but also in the Caribbean and Africa.
In Canada, says the task force, a commitment to “equitable vaccination of Black communities’’ can be achieved through “ring-fencing of vaccine doses and collaboration with agencies serving Black populations’’.
The task force has appealed to the City of Toronto to support a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative, aimed at saving lives from the COVID virus in developing countries. Task force members also want the Canadian government to donate a percentage of its surplus vaccines to poorer countries overseas.
“Canada should pledge, at least 15 percent of its vaccine supplies, to meet global needs,’’ the task force’s report recommends.
The report notes that “the geographic roots of Black Torontonians extend far and wide. Black Canadian communities have members from scores of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean’’.
However, most Caribbean, Latin American and African nations “have received scant doses of COVID-19 vaccines, if any at all, to inoculate their seniors and healthcare workers’’, said the report.
“The current global access to COVID-19 vaccines support the premise that Black lives do not matter, globally. High-income countries have secured an over-supply of available vaccines, whilst many countries have no access to COVID-19 immunization. Low-risk persons in high-income countries are thus afforded more life-saving prevention than high-risk persons in low-income countries,’’ it said.
“Improving global responses to the needs of Black populations improves local confidence in government by Black populations. This worldwide pandemic will not be resolved until global vaccine needs are adequately met and the virus is effectively contained.’’