A Swansea-based charity is fighting for health equality by encouraging people from BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – communities to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
Volunteers at non-profit organisation BAME Mental Health (BMHS) usually focus on mental health equality by offering a phoneline and translating mental health information for communities across Wales.
But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic the charity has widened its work by providing these communities with Covid-19 education and support.
It is now pushing to encourage more people from BAME communities to trust the vaccination process following evidence that people from such backgrounds are more likely to refuse the jabs.
Director of BMHS, Alfred Oyekoya, said he wanted to make sure vaccine decisions in the BAME community were at least based on informed decisions.
He said there were a number of reasons why someone from a BAME background might refuse the vaccine, that some were scared or sceptical because of historic injustices.
“In a meeting we had with Public health Wales it was confirmed to us (on January 4) that elderly BAME communities are actually turning down the vaccination,” he said.
“There are lots of reasons for this, but a major driving force behind the lack of confidence and trust is the existing historical injustices. These are fuelled by misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media.”
Mr Oyekoya, 28, referred to one of the most notable historic injustices, the Tuskegee experiment, which began in 1932 and lasted decades.
The experiment meant 600 African American men in Alabama were enrolled in a project which aimed to study syphilis.
Researchers provided no effective care and the study’s participants experienced severe health problems including blindness, mental impairment and even death.
As a result many developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials and vaccines. In part to foster racial healing, in 1997 President Bill Clinton issued an apology for what happened.
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“People don’t forget it and it is readily available on the internet for people to see”, Mr Oyekoya said.
The drive to encourage as many BAME people to get the vaccine as possible has also been motivated by concerning public health statistics that people from these backgrounds are more likely to be negatively affected by the virus.
In October, 2020, Office for National Statistics data revealed that out of all men in England and Wales, those of black African backgrounds had the highest rate of death involving Covid-19, with a rate 2.7 times higher than that of white males.
For women, the highest rate was among those of black Caribbean ethnic backgrounds, at almost twice that of white females
The report also showed that males of Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds had a higher risk of death from Covid-19 than those of Pakistani background.
“From speaking to my committee members there are BAME people who don’t even believe coronavirus poses them more of a risk than others,” Mr Oyekoya said.
“People have said ‘if it is true, why is the virus not more rampant in Africa’, for example. I believe it is true based on the figures released by the government, but regardless of that until everyone is agreeing to have their vaccine, this country is not safe.
“And then there’s the issue of health inequalities – lots of BAME community members are disadvantaged when it comes to health equality because of the lack of information and understanding the information that is readily available to them.”
Mr Oyekoya said their biggest concern was that when it came to young people getting invited for the vaccine, even more would turn it down.
He said: “Our biggest concern is that by the end of May when the younger people come to get called for vaccinations we will see a massive amount of them saying no to getting their jab if this misinformation and the conspiracy theories are not addressed, so we want to bridge that gap.
“The older generation tend to say no to the vaccine because of lack of confidence in the available information.”
Mr Oyekoya said BMHS aimed to help educate people on the facts of the current coronavirus pandemic and the importance of the vaccine in a number of ways.
It will be speaking to people through its helpline as well as arranging educational Zoom calls for anyone interested in learning more.
BMHS will also continue to translate coronavirus information into the native languages of the people it helps.
Mr Oyekoya explained: “We have medical doctors and expert nurses who speak to them directly, and a series of events online, such as on Zoom, to encourage the community to listen to experts and ask relevant questions.
“The reason why we are doing this is because we believe this pandemic needs everyone’s support. As community leaders, we are in the better position to communicate the government guidance and information and public health information to our people.
“We don’t just do this in English, we also do it in their local languages because some of the challenges we face are the cultural and language barriers.”
But one of the main ways BMHS hopes to help is by getting real people from the community involved, by documenting their vaccination experience and sharing it with friends and family.
It is something Mr Oyekoya – who is of Nigerian heritage – will be doing himself on Saturday, February 6, when he is due to receive his first jab in Gorseinon.
“I received a call from the NHS, being one of the directors of mental health support,” he said.
“Some people think clapping for the NHS or staying at home is enough. The fact is, we all have a role to play. So for me, there is a sense of taking responsibility by taking the vaccine, a sense of doing my part. Vaccinations are not just there to protect yourself, they are there to protect your family members and the public because you are stopping transmission.
“I am a community leader and I believe in advocacy and education, and getting the right information to the people. We are not in a position to force people to take the vaccination, but we want to make sure they are saying no based on an informed decision.”
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