In response to incredible government ineptitude, four volunteers built Canada’s go-to COVID-19 vaccine resource almost overnight.
Vaccine Hunters Canada blew up on Twitter and Discord this week, with many of its 30,000 followers saying they never would have been able to get themselves or their family members vaccinated without it.
The small team has been posting up-to-date information on how and where to get vaccinated across the country, including last-minute changes and availabilities, bringing relief to people desperately waiting to get the shot.
“I hope you understand how amazing a service you’re performing for the community,” one person wrote on Twitter. Another posted, “Thank you so much @VaxHuntersCan I feel like I can finally breathe for the first time in over a year.”
Kerry Bowman, who teaches bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, said the fact that so many Canadians are turning to a DIY social media account for vaccine information speaks to confusion and frustration with the vaccine rollouts, which are largely the responsibility of the provincial governments.
“It’s been poor planning, it’s been a fractured system and the public health communication has not been that clear,” he said.
“It didn’t have to be this bad. When you look at Britain and parts of the United States, it’s not perfect but they’re moving ahead.”
About 21 percent of Canadians have received at least one shot as of April 13, according to online research publication Our World in Data. By comparison, the United Kingdom is at 48 percent and the U.S. at 37 percent. Israel, at 62 percent, is the global vaccination leader.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maintains all Canadians can be vaccinated by the end of September.
Bowman said the federal government got a slow start by failing to negotiate contracts with pharmaceutical companies in a timely fashion (or produce its own vaccine), and that Canada’s sprawling geography and the division of responsibilities between federal and provincial governments made things complicated from the outset.
Ambiguity around who is considered vulnerable, how to define an essential worker, and what health conditions qualify someone for a vaccine have contributed to further confusion, Bowman said, while online and telephone booking systems have been plagued with problems.
Thankfully, for all the incompetence at the top, we still have the unpaid labour of the working class.
Software developer Joshua Kalpin is one of four people currently running Vaccine Hunters Canada, on top of a full-time job. He got involved two weeks ago after an intensive search to find vaccines for family members.
Modeled off the American site vaccinehunter.org, the account often makes multiple posts an hour, giving its followers real-time information when there’s a pop-up site, an appointment slot that needs filling, a possibility of vaccine wastage or a change in eligibility criteria.
The team uses TweetDeck to aggregate real-time information from public health units and hospital networks across Canada, scours Reddit for helpful posts, and gets a growing stream of tips from the public that it verifies before posting.
“The best help anybody can get is from their community,” Kalpin said.
“People are scared, people want these vaccines so, so, so badly.”
He recognizes that only so many people can be reached online, and urges the account’s followers to spread the word to the less tech-savvy.
“Reach out to every single person you know—friends, family, coworkers, community, neighbours—and help them get their shot. That’s how we get out of this.”
Bowman said Vaccine Hunters Canada is part of a “fabulous” emerging network of COVID-19 volunteerism, citing stories of neighbours doorknocking to help seniors navigate vaccine booking systems.
“I see what’s happening in a positive way really emerging bottom-up as opposed to top-down. What I mean by that is it’s really coming from individuals, communities, online groups. It's not coming from the government,” Bowman said.
“I would say the people are doing better than the leaders are in a lot of ways, in terms of getting us organized and getting us through it.”
Follow Kevin Maimann on Twitter.