Why COVID Vaccination is an Equity Issue

At a time when many worry about when they will get a COVID-19 vaccination, it is important to remember that not everyone is entirely enthusiastic. The pathway out of this confusion must include health and racial equity.

COVID-19 has disproportionally affected certain groups, most notably seniors and members of racialized communities. Given this reality, we would expect these same groups to be prioritized for vaccination. We have been reassured that older seniors are the top priority in the vaccine rollout. This priority is not extended to racialized communities, who seem to have been forgotten.

Only a few short months ago, the strategy that encouraged long lineups for testing people at very low risk of COVID-19 failed us. Giving testing access to people who did not really need it not only wasted precious health-care resources, it also prevented us from getting testing to those at most risk. We missed the real threat of a virus concentrated among people who could not easily self-isolate or faced many barriers to testing. The system also assumed everyone had a car. Mothers facing the prospect of taking their small children with them by bus to a testing centre, only to wait in line for hours, stayed away instead – then went to work, perhaps in front-line jobs, so they could survive. By the time we understood the need to create equitable access to testing and isolation for all citizens, the virus was out of easy control.

Will the vaccination rollout be more of the same? The long history of systemic racism and abuse in our health-care system is disgraceful and, sadly, ongoing.

Many people from racialized communities are vaccine-hesitant. The populations that have borne the burden of greatest harm from COVID-19 may see little reason for trust in institutions mandated to protect them. Some are influenced by messages from “conspiracy” videos which claim that the vaccine is a tool to wipe them out.

Why should we care if people from racialized communities don’t want to be vaccinated?

As humans, we care about and want the best possible outcomes for each other. Our renewed commitment to promoting racial equality over the past six months obligates us to action. And even the most hardened and uncaring can see that we need to act in our own self-interest.

We all collectively benefit from the protection offered by COVID-19 vaccinations. This protection is most effective when it encompasses everyone. The less health-care resources need to be used for COVID-19 care, the more they can be available for other essential health needs.

The country that protects everyone will be the first to return to normal. Normal means: economic growth, COVID-19 debt reduction, positive mental and physical health outcomes along with the opportunity for the best quality of life – for all.

This is a basic health equity issue: notoriously simple, yet inherently complicated. People working in long-term care, home care, retail and all the other “essential” occupations where the workforce comes disproportionately from racialized communities have the power accelerate or slow down our efforts to return to normal life. It’s all a matter of trust.

The best answers will come when we work with and listen to affected communities. We may find out our plans won’t work; after all, we are not experts on their lives. Health officials may not be in charge as they are not yet the trusted voices in the process. Humbling? Yes. But easily rectified if we care enough to try.

Communities can solve complicated problems. If that were not true, the human race could not survive. Can we invest the time to ask what people need to know to feel safe, so we can all be safer?

The terrible consequences of this pandemic also bring tremendous opportunity: to build a society that is a little more resilient, a lot more equal and a whole lot fairer than the one we had previously.

Wendy Muckle is CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, an organization whose mission is to contribute to ending homelessness in the community by providing health care and improving quality of life.

Mathieu Fleury is city councillor for Lowertown, Sandy Hill and Vanier and the chair of Ottawa Community Housing, Ottawa’s largest landlord, serving more than 32,00 diverse tenants.

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