Coronavirus

Black and Asian Community Leaders Are Battling Vaccine Conspiracy Theories

Anti-vaxxers have targeted ethnic minority communities, so celebrities and doctors are debunking the disinformation.
February 1, 2021, 12:49pm
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Cricketer Moeen Ali and actor Meera Syal appear in a video encouraging people from BAME communities to take the coronavirus vaccine. Photo: Screengrab via NHS North East London Youtube account.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) doctors, celebrities and politicians are encouraging people in the UK to get vaccinated, and fighting a wave of conspiracy theories and disinformation that have been targeted at these communities.

The COVID-19 vaccination programme is crucial to controlling the pandemic but there are deep concerns over uptake of the vaccine within BAME communities. New data from the UK Office for National Statistics shows that 28 percent of 150 Black adults surveyed said that they were unlikely to have the vaccine, compared to 7 percent of 240 white adults, 13 percent of 170 people with mixed ethnicity and 8 percent of Asian adults.

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BAME communities face higher mortality rates from the virus, and they are also targeted by anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists who adjust their message by exploiting historical injustices.

In response, BAME campaigners are targeting their communities with tailored messages to encourage the take up of the vaccine. Last week BAME celebrities including actors Adil Ray and Meera Syal, and cricketer Moeen Ali released a video aimed at encouraging people to get the vaccine and debunking misinformation. “Unfortunately we are now fighting another pandemic: misinformation,” Ray, who helped organise the video, said.

BAME MPs from both the Conservative and Labour parties also made a video encouraging the uptake of the vaccine.

Dr Sarah Ann Filson, an Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Registrar at Northwick Park Hospital, North West London, said that misinformation and disinformation being spread during the pandemic had led to mistrust and confusion. “I have worked on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic and seen how the response has continually adapted and changed,” she said. “I have also seen the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities. I therefore understand the importance of reliable and evidence based information especially about the vaccines. I believe many people are hesitant for valid reasons and need their views to be heard and questions answered.”

She has taken part in webinars via the Hidden Science Academy which targets concerns around the vaccine within the Black community, as well as appearing on a podcast called “Debunking Medical Myths with Dr Diggi” which tackles issues around COVID and vaccines. She has also been sharing reliable sources of information on her social media throughout the pandemic.

“The availability of resources in other languages especially in areas with big migrant communities as it enables patients to make informed choices,” she said. “Within my hospital we often manage patients who speak limited English and are fortunate to have staff members from the local communities who do speak a number of different languages.”

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Dr Nighat Arif, an NHS GP and contributor on BBC Breakfast and ITV’s This Morning, said:“I have seen first hand the tragic loss of life from a preventable cause which is the COVID-19 virus,” she said. “I’ve seen friends lose family members, so the vaccine was the way out to safeguard our communities and for me to see my patients safely.”

For her, creating relatable content which shows her “real life experience” that her “community can understand” was vitally important. “The misinformation [in my community] means that those who are undecided on the fence might not take up the vaccine. [Creating resources] in different languages is important to gain trust and get information across in an effective manner – especially for whom English is not their first language.”

Misinformation about the vaccine is also widespread in particular religious groups. For instance, there were rumours on WhatsApp wrongly suggesting that the vaccine contained pork gelatine, which worried the Muslim community.

Dr Iram Sattar, a GP working in London and a trustee at Muslim Women’s Network UK, created resources with the organisation to tackle the “malicious misinformation out there,” particularly on WhatsApp. Alongside videos in Urdu, English and Sylheti, they also wrote a blog called “COVID-19 Vaccine Myths vs. Facts”.

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“Health information needs to communicate to all whatever their language, background or disability and it should be simple, clear and concise. Targeted informational resources work better than a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she said.

Dr Sattar also emphasised the importance of the vaccine within the South Asian community. ”It’s one of our key defences in our fight against COVID-19. For Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic communities COVID-19 vaccination is even more important as they are sadly more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to the white population and yet these communities are less likely to have the vaccine compared to them.” 

It’s not just doctors who have stepped up to the challenge of combating vaccine myths. The BBC World Service and BBC Asian Network joined forces to create accessible videos in different languages to tackle common vaccine myths in the South Asian community.

Nalini Sivathasan and Sarika Unadkat are both journalists at BBC Asian Network and worked on the project. In an email to VICE World News they said: “When the first lockdown started in March 2020 it became apparent from our listeners that there were concerns certain parts of the Asian community did not understand what coronavirus was or the government’s lockdown rules, particularly elderly people who may not have English as their first language.”

This inspired the team to create videos, explaining different terms and explaining the rules. “At the BBC, we have a duty as a public service broadcaster to serve all our communities in the UK, not just English-speaking ones.

“The South Asian community in the UK is not a monolith – there’s a wide number of languages spoken here.

“It’s vital to have consistency, and give out the same message in different languages. Thankfully our diverse pool of journalists and contacts are able to do this. Given how coronavirus has disproportionately affected the South Asian community it feels even more important to do all we can to help tackle the misinformation out there.”