Newcomer, racialized families have limited access to tech, face COVID-19 misinformation: charity founder

Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is spreading faster than factual information in some racialized and newcomer communities in Hamilton, according to a local charity founder.

Food insecurity, support for children among other obstacles during pandemic

Head of a local Hamilton charity says some communities aren't receiving factual information, which feeds into vaccine hesitancy. (Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters)

Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is spreading faster than factual information in some racialized and newcomer communities in Hamilton, according to a local charity founder.  

Leo Johnson, executive director of Empowerment Squared, says part of the reason lies in a lack of access to technology.

He says his organization has heard from residents who say this barrier is among the most common obstacles faced by newcomers and racialized households during the pandemic. 

Not being able to access truthful information, he said, feeds into vaccine hesitancy. 

"Unfortunately what they tend to get is the misinformation that gets around faster," Johnson said. "They're not getting any information from appropriate sources where information should come from...I think that's where the real challenge is."

The Hamilton-based organization has been contacting newcomer and racialized families bi-weekly since March 2020 about their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For each survey they send out, the groups hears back from at least 35 families. 

About half of the people the organization reaches say they don't have access to information about vaccines at all, Johnson said. 

Leo Johnson, executive director of Empowerment Squared, spoke about obstacles seen by newcomer and racialized families in the city's general issues committee meeting on Wednesday. (City of Hamilton/YouTube)

Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann noted that many people rely on a particular social media platform — WhatsApp — which neither the federal, provincial, nor municipal governments currently use to get information out. 

Looking at embracing platforms like WhatsApp is one way to fix things, Johnson said, as well as engaging more with community partners. 

"Vaccine hesitancy is an enduring problem, especially for a multitude of reasons in the marginalized, racialized community," said Mayor Fred Eisenberger. "We really need to use all of our resources to get on top of that."

Other pandemic needs

Johnson shared the top four consistent needs he's heard from residents in a general issues committee Wednesday. They included:

  • Food insecurity and household essentials.
  • Computers, technological accessories, and Internet.
  • Access to government and authorities. 
  • Activities and support for youth and children. 

Around 91 per cent of families report being impacted by food insecurity, he said, and 50 per cent say they have limited access to technology.

Fifty per cent also reported having limited access to the internet — meaning there might not be enough bandwidth for all children to attend class — and 25 per cent had no access at all. 

With schools continually moving back and forth to an online format, Johnson said families with only one computer in a house are attempting to juggle multiple children who need to log into their classes.

Other families are using cell phones, he said, which might not be capable to download all the apps needed. 

Councillor Nann says some communities largely rely on WhatsApp, but no level of government has yet to embrace the platform in order to get information out about vaccines. (Patrick Sison/The Associated Press)

Forty-four percent of respondents surveyed said they had no access to government assistance programs, and 85 per cent said they didn't have support for their children. 

"It is trying at the best of times to follow the instructions and the public health information, and in the absence of having that quick access, I honestly don't know how people do it," said Ward 1 Councillor Maureen Wilson. 


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