Sask. pharmacist understands why some Indigenous people might be hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccine

Jaris Swidrovich says years of mistreatment has caused some Indigenous people to be mistrustful of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Research shows years of neglect, lack of consultation led to vaccine fears

Jaris Swidrovich is a doctor of pharmacy and a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation. (Submitted by Jaris Swidrovich)

It's a big day for Jaris Swidrovich.

On Thursday, the pharmacist from the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan received his first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

"I'm feeling really excited and actually quite emotional," he said.

"It's been a really challenging year.... This is a really tangible next step to see this pandemic through." 

However, Swidrovich knows not everyone in the Indigenous community is as excited to receive the vaccine.

Swidrovich, along with Ryerson University history professor Ian Mosby, wrote an article in the March edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal about why some Indigenous people are hesitant to get the vaccine.

The article summarizes decades of mistreatment of Indigenous people at the hands of the health-care system, from nutrition experiments on residential school children in the 1940s to the federal government sending body bags to Manitoba First Nations during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 to forced sterilizations of women in Saskatoon.

"Sometimes we hear some negative connotations about indigenous people, perhaps mistrust in the system with with little reason to back that up," he said. 

"This paper really was all about backing up exactly why Indigenous peoples have really good reason to be hesitant — not necessarily refuse a vaccine, but hesitating to take a moment to think about it."

Swidrovich said the best way to get Indigenous communities to trust vaccines is to include the communities as much as possible in planning.

"Everything related to campaigns and public promotion, promotional material, messaging town halls, making sure that information about the vaccines and COVID-19 in general are available in our languages," said Swidrovich.

"Having materials that are available on something like YouTube or free media channels would be excellent, and just having enough of it to to overcome some of the misinformation that might be out there."

Swidrovich has also received training to administer the vaccine. 

"After I received the training and shared about that on social media, it was really quite cool to see family members, friends, community members connect with me and say, 'That's so exciting. And I really wish that I could get the vaccine from you,' or 'If I'm going to get it from anyone, I want it from you,'" he said. 

"So, that's exactly what I was hoping for — to restore some faith in this process and restore some faith in the vaccine, and hopefully prompt some people to be more on the side of receiving it than not."

Right now, Saskatchewan is in Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout, which means anyone 67 years or older, people in the north 50 years or older, the clinically extremely vulnerable, and people in emergency shelters and group homes can book an appointment to get the vaccine.