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Boris Johnson is busy celebrating the completion of the first priority group for vaccination, but we are already failing black and Asian over 70s, even as we happily move on to the over 65s.
After repeated requests from community leaders and politicians, the Department of Health and Social Care finally released the ethnicity stats on vaccine take-up that didn’t shock me, or many of the Doctors I have spoken with. They show that, compared with wider society you are almost half as likely to have received the jab if you are from an ethnic minority (non-white people make up 14 per cent of the population but only 8 per cent of those have received vaccines so far).
The current black and Asian vaccine outreach strategy may seem reasonable to middle class black and Asian ministers in London but is doing little to connect with an 80 year-old grandmother in Bradford who doesn’t speak English and exclusively watches foreign TV channels.
We need to really understand where vaccine hesitancy comes from in these communities (if we ask they are quite happy to tell us), and connect with those concerns in an authentic, grassroots way with figures recognisable to them – not to politicians.
A vaccine is only as effective as its uptake – and no one in Whitehall or Downing Street can say these challenges were unforeseen. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that only 49 per cent of 150 black or black British adults said they would be likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine, compared with 85 per cent of 13,240 white adults.
One of the dangers is that vaccine hesitancy in black and Asian communities will be tarred with the same brushstroke as conspiracy theories. Hesitancy, rather than conspiracy theorism, is understandable, almost rational: injecting a substance into someone’s skin is the ultimate intrusion of the private sphere. Allowing a government to do so is dependent on trust. Trust that has in many cases not been earned by the government, of which public health authorities are a part.
In just the last few years, from Grenfell and Windrush to stop-and-searches and pay gaps, the black and Asian communities can be forgiven for supposing that they aren’t front and centre of the government’s concerns.
This distrust has deep roots. Many British black communities will remember how blacks were treated across the Atlantic, when the US public health service oversaw a 40-year programme to observe the effects of untreated syphilis on black men in the Tuskegee Experiment, which ended only in 1972. Fifty years is not a long time when we are talking about collective memory and trauma.
The question is how to overcome this communications challenge. I feel the answer is not to recruit ex-Blue Peter presenter Connie Huq and ex-Kumars at number 42 star Sanjeev Bhaskar.
Neither of those names would be in my top 100 list of who really has social influence within black and Asian communities. They would, however, be in my top 100 list of black and Asian celebs who are known to white middle class people.
A Bollywood star like Amitabh Bachchan would do more to sway British Asian public opinion – something that would be relatively easy to arrange given the close links between the British and Indian governments, and the fact that much of our vaccine supply comes from India.
At the grassroots level, the government has invested £23 million for local councils to recruit ‘community champions’ to tackle the spread of misinformation and encourage vaccine uptake. A local approach is welcome, but many councils are not bastions of diversity: last year Bradford council, in one of the UK’s most multicultural towns, launched a campaign to ‘unite’ Bradford. A campaign that was made up exclusively of white people.
I know how stubborn older British Asian patients can be. We need to reach them through the people they admire and trust. Top-down, that means Bollywood stars. Bottom-up, that means local GPs, religious leaders and community activists – and not just the usual suspects in government rolodexes – are key.
Non-English language media is also essential – much of which has been neglected in previous government information drives and has seen little of the £43 million spent by Public Health England as it became the UK’s biggest advertiser during lockdown.
No one wants a two-tier partially vaccinated society, segregated along racial lines. We must act now before this dystopian image becomes our reality.
Dr Nilesh Parmar is co-founder of Parmar Dental.