Building trust key to tackling vaccine hesitation among immigrants, say event organizers

Online education events targeting newcomers can help play a huge part in improving vaccine uptake in those communities, according to event organizers.

Education plays a role in winning over communities still wary of immunizations

Some immigrants can be reluctant to get immunized due to language barriers and misinformation. Two online education events targeting newcomers to Calgary are taking place this week. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Online education events targeting newcomers and specific religious groups in Calgary can help play a huge part in improving vaccine uptake in those communities, according to event organizers and organizations that work with newcomers.

Two online events tailored for immigrants and refugees along with Calgary's large Muslim population take place this week.

The Centre for Newcomers teams up with Alberta Health Services on Monday for an online event covering immunization and information on the different vaccines being used to try to bring down rocketing COVID-19 numbers in Alberta.

Later in the week, on Saturday, a live panel event organized by the Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre and the Calgary chapter of the Muslim Medical Association of Canada, called I Don't Trust The Vaccine, will address questions in the Muslim community about vaccines, with a physician and an Imam taking questions and dispelling myths about COVID vaccines.

"It's part of a larger conversation we're having working within the Calgary East Zone Newcomers Collaborative, working with ethno-cultural groups around hesitancy and confusion in the community about the different information we keep receiving," said Anila Lee Yuen with the Centre for Newcomers.

Lee Yuen says newcomers are no more susceptible to misinformation than other Calgarians but there are other factors and barriers that are unique to them.

"If the information isn't received in first languages, it can be confusing. Also, we keep getting updated, changing information, and that can be confusing," said Lee Yuen, referencing confusion around the AstraZeneca vaccine and risks around rare side-effects.

"And depending on who's bringing the information forward on vaccine, different communities based on their own lived experience in their home countries can be hesitant," she said.

Calgary Centre for Newcomers CEO Anila Lee Yuen says a lot more barriers exist for newcomers when it comes to accessing information around COVID and vaccines. (Dan McGarvey/CBC )

"They may not trust the government because of their previous experiences back home. There could be other trauma related to being vaccinated or just having the government telling you what to do," she said.

Lee Yuen says hosting and holding online conversations is another way of providing up to date information in a safe, reliable format that newcomers can trust.

There are also issues around how newcomers can access vaccines and appointments in their communities.

Transportation can be an issue for many families and individuals, along with the process of signing up for a vaccination online or using the phone in a different language.

"Some people don't have reliable internet or the technology they need to book, and others are worried about providing their information due to fears about their status," said Lee Yuen.

Monday's event hosted by the Centre for Newcomers will include a presentation on vaccines and opportunities for attendees to put questions to an AHS representative.

Others who work with newcomers say many still get their information from news organizations and social media accounts based in their home countries in their own languages, which can sometimes be a problem when it comes to credible and relevant information.

"They follow media from those countries and they often don't get the correct information, so it's very important for us to provide information in their languages with information based on the cities and countries they are in," said Saima Jamal, who works with newcomers in Calgary as the co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society.

Jamal says the online events are important but they, too, will be, for the most part, in English.

"Unless they hear information from a person they trust in a language they understand, it doesn't always get to them," said Jamal.

"There's still a huge missing part in all of this," she added.

Dat Thanh Nguyen, 25, gets his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a door-to-door clinic in Toronto on April 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The group ActionDignity has been working closely with ethno-cultural communities in Calgary throughout the pandemic.

One of its key tools is an emergency response hotline to help newcomers in 24 languages. The number is 1-833-217-6414.

They say many people call with questions about COVID and the vaccine as well as to access food hampers and counselling support.

"We are addressing vaccine hesitation within the community," said Jun Naraval, programs and policy manager with ActionDignity. 

"Through our hotline we surveyed 1,200 people about their willingness to receive a vaccination," said Naraval.

Naraval said 22 per cent of those questioned expressed hesitancy in getting a vaccine and were undecided.

Five per cent said they would refuse a vaccine.

Naraval said reasons included concerns around pregnancy, side-effects, vaccine safety and other health concerns.

He says newcomers often fall through the cracks when it comes to accessing quality information.

On Saturday, Calgary's Muslim community, many of them immigrants to Calgary, will get the chance to learn more about vaccines in an event organized by the Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre.

"They need to understand the Government of Canada and Health Canada have the highest standards, that vaccines have met all of the criteria, all of the standards," said Dr. Mukarram Zaidi, a Calgary physician and epidemiologist who will be part of the panel.

Dr. Mukarram Zaidi says community leaders can play a vital role when it comes getting the right information out to diverse communities. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"The vaccine we have today is the best possible approach we have," he said.

Zaidi says that with all the myths and misconceptions in circulation, it's important to reach out to communities via people they can trust, often community leaders rather than politicians.

"Sheikh Fayaz Tilly has incredible credibility as a community leader and as an imam," said Zaidi. Tilly will join Zaidi in Saturday's event.

"His family have developed a relationship with the community and the community has a lot of trust in him," said Zaidi. 

"People have questions: Do we still have to wash our hands? Do we still have to wear a mask? Can we still get infected after being vaccinated?"

He says the main message will be that COVID vaccines are by far the best way to protect people and their loved ones from severe disease.