'No excuse': Hamilton vaccine group member wants BIPOC community prioritized

A member of the group advising Hamilton public health says the city isn't doing enough to prioritize racialized, disabled and low-income residents in its vaccine rollout.

Hamilton public health says it is making 'small strides,' but Ameil Joseph says more needs to be done

Ameil Joseph says he and other members of the vaccine readiness network want public health to prioritize BIPOC communities in its vaccine rollout. (Ameil Joseph)

A member of the group advising Hamilton public health says the city isn't doing enough to prioritize racialized, disabled and low-income residents in its vaccine rollout.

But Hamilton Public Health Services (HPHS) says it's making "small strides" in doing that.

Ameil Joseph, a member of the Hamilton Vaccine Readiness Network and a McMaster University associate professor who studies critical race theory, has written to public health urging it to make changes to who gets first access to local vaccinations.

"There is no reason, no excuse for leaving racialized groups off the priority list for vaccination when we know these groups are disproportionately impacted due to pervasive and persistent historical and contemporary contexts of inequity," he wrote.

"We cannot claim that we recognize systemic racism and then, when given this knowledge and charged with the responsibility to address it, we knowingly choose to perpetuate it.

"The time to act is long past due."

Other members have voiced concerns too, including representatives from the Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association, the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton and Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre.

The second phase of Ontario's vaccine plan included prioritizing adults living in communities with the highest COVID-19 infection rates, noting people of colour and lower-income families have been disproportionately impacted.

HPHS has previously acknowledged people of colour have been hit harder during the pandemic. In its report last year, it said out of 992 cases between March and the end of August 2020, 51 per cent of those people surveyed identified as people of colour, despite people of colour only making up about 19 per cent of the city's total population.

Getting rid of barriers

"One of the simplest ways to address that is to add those groups to the list of people that can book appointments," Joseph said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

"What that does is it gets rid of all these other barriers they're now creating through other interim measures to try and target those groups via through postal code or condition or income ... it doesn't reduce them, it increases them."

HPHS has made changes to serve some equity-seeking groups. It previously allowed members of the homeless community to get vaccines. Indigenous adults are also able to get vaccines as part of the province's phased rollout.

HPHS's website says a registration and booking option for the Black and racialized population is "coming soon."

Public health also stopped collecting race-based data months ago because the infection rate started overwhelming contact tracers.

Public health says it's making 'small strides'

In a statement, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, says Hamilton is making "small strides."

"We are currently locating mobile pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinics throughout the city in order to increase access, including locations this past week at Norman Pinky Lewis Recreation Centre, and Bernie Morelli Recreation Centre and at Lake Avenue School in the Riverdale neighbourhood," she said in an email.

"Placement of large-scale clinics with our healthcare partners throughout the city in order to increase access, such as the Hamilton Health Sciences vaccine clinic in the heart of the Beasley and Keith neighbourhoods, and the FirstOntario Centre mass vaccine clinic bordering Beasley and Central neighbourhoods in the downtown core."

WATCH: Kwame McKenzie says 'COVID-19 is not the great equalizer — it discriminates' 

Kwame McKenzie says 'COVID-19 is not the great equalizer — it discriminates'

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Kwame McKenzie, the CEO of the Wellesley Institute and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, says the pandemic has magnified existing issues in marginalized communities.

Richardson said public health will keep listening to the community despite challenging times.

The city has previously said it hasn't received enough vaccines from the province to immunize as many people as it possible could.

Joseph acknowledged public health is listening and making progress, but hasn't taken the critical step of changing the vaccine strategy.

His letter has been co-signed by more than 400 others as of Monday morning, including the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, and the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.