The behind-the-scenes, back-alley push to get Toronto's Chinatown vaccinated against COVID-19

Matthew Pi's mission was to cover all of Toronto's Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood one week in mid-May encouraging everyone he encountered to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and urging them to spread the word.

Volunteers make sure Chinatown doesn't get left behind in push to get vaccines into arms

Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhood on March 23. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Back alleys where restaurant cooks take their 15-minute breaks. Bike repair shops where delivery workers hang out between runs. Parks where people experiencing homelessness gather. 

Matthew Pi's mission was to cover all these nooks and crannies of Toronto's Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood one week in mid-May, encouraging everyone he encountered to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and urging them to spread the word.

"They don't have time to do investigations on Twitter to see if a clinic is legit or not," Pi said. "They need someone to talk to when they're off their shift, on the fly."

Pi was part of a team of 10 volunteers from Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT) charged with vaccine outreach as part of a city-wide effort to target communities with lower vaccination rates.

When Toronto hit the milestone in May of 65 per cent of adults having received their first dose, Kensington-Chinatown's rate hovered around 50 per cent, according to city data. 

Matthew Pi lives in Toronto's Chinatown and is a community organizer with Friends of Chinatown Toronto. (Submitted by Matthew Pi)

That indicated to FOCT that the government's vaccine messaging, predominantly in English, was not reaching their community. Pi said they knew they'd have to get creative to make those conversations with residents happen.

'Chinatown deserves the vaccine'

Chinatowns across Canada have struggled to survive the pandemic, with business owners speaking out in Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg, telling a story of financial hardship.

In early 2020, as word spread about the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, people began avoiding the Toronto neighbourhood and wearing masks, said Chiyi Tam, a Friends of Chinatown Toronto organizer.

Before the pandemic was officially declared, Chinatown businesses were feeling the impact, Tonny Louie, the business improvement area chair, told CBC News in March 2020

Now that hope is building that life can return to a semblance of normal thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, Tam is determined Chinatown doesn't get left behind. 

"Chinatown deserves the vaccine," she said. "They really deserve to survive through this pandemic just as much as everyone else."

People walk through Chinatown on March 23. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

FOCT volunteers ramped up efforts the week before a pop-up clinic was planned May 25 and 26 at the Cecil Community Centre.

Pi said he worked 14-hour days to spread the word, hanging up posters about the clinic in Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese, urging people to call or send messages to the number of a burner phone with any questions.

Tam said people contacted them on the phone at least 500 times, and they're still getting calls. 

They expected people to be most concerned about vaccine efficacy and safety, but that wasn't the case. Many were worried about revealing their immigration status.

"Hundreds of text messages and phone calls reveal to us ID hesitancy is just as potent as general vaccine hesitancy," Tam said.

Volunteers spent the most time reassuring people they could still get vaccinated even if they aren't Canadian citizens, or don't have Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) cards. 

"They're counting themselves out," Tam said. "They don't think it's something that could include them." 

Pop-up clinic administers 2,000 doses

Both Tam and Pi also volunteered at the two-day pop-up clinic, organized by the Mid-West Toronto Ontario Health Team, and saw many of the people they'd spoken to show up with a friend or family member in tow. 

"It takes a lot of bravery to show up at the clinic," Tam said. "So kudos to the community members who mustered through all of these barriers." 

All 2,000 doses were administered and the neighbourhood's vaccine rate has risen to 60.8 per cent of adults receiving their first dose, says city data. 

However, following the clinic, FOCT raised concerns about how it was run, alleging systemic racism. 

There were only a couple of professional translators at the site, which made it difficult for some residents to answer screening questions about their health, FOCT said in a statement last Tuesday.

The group said clinic staff were disrespectful and condescending toward residents and in some cases insisted people with precarious immigration status provide identification. 

"Some medical and registration staff were shocked that many residents did not have OHIP and they did not know how to navigate the registration system without it," the statement said.

John Yip, president and CEO of Kensington Health, one of the groups that ran the clinic, told CBC News he welcomes an "honest and open dialogue" to discuss FOCT's concerns.

He acknowledged the pop-up clinic did become "chaotic" and there needs to be better coordination and training, but he said has not heard any complaints directly from residents or other community groups.

He said FOCT has done "tremendous community outreach" and was the driving force behind the success of the clinic. 

FOCT is calling on clinic organizers to train staff "on how to respectfully interact with racialized vaccine recipients" who don't speak English or who are undocumented.

FOCT is hoping another pop-up clinic will be held in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Tam and Pi plan to continue their engagement efforts. 

"It's almost ingrained in me now that I run with a flyer after a delivery guy on his bike," Pi said.

"And I yell at him, 'Have you gotten your first shot? Do you want to tell your friends about it?'"