Toronto's Black scientists' task force to host 1st town hall meeting addressing vaccine hesitancy

A task force featuring of some Toronto's top Black scientists and health-care experts hosts its first virtual town hall meeting Saturday, as the group seeks to dispel rumours and misinformation swirling around COVID-19 vaccines.

Black Torontonians have highest rates of COVID-19, most likely to resist vaccines

Akwatu Khenti, chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, says Black health-care professionals are uniquely positioned to educate Black residents hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines. (Adam Coish/University of Toronto)

On a Zoom call scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Akwatu Khenti and a team featuring some of Toronto's leading Black health-care experts will begin what is by all accounts a monumental challenge.

Their goal is to persuade more Black residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Accomplishing that will involve undoing multiple generations' worth of damage and distrust inflicted on Black communities by medical science.

Khenti believes his team is uniquely equipped to take on that challenge.

"Black professionals, especially Black scientists, can speak to that as fellow sufferers," said Khenti, chair of Toronto's Black Scientists' Task Force on Vaccine Equity.

"We, too, have been there."

Task force to host 5 town hall meetings

On Saturday, the task force will host the first of five virtual town hall meetings aimed at combating misinformation and reducing levels of vaccine hesitancy in Toronto's Black community.

Black people's distrust of medical professionals in general, and of vaccines in particular, is rooted in historical events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which Black men in Alabama were unwittingly subjected to an unethical medical experiment conducted by white doctors. Researchers, activists and patients also point to anti-Black racism in Canada's health-care system.

Consequently, Black residents are believed to be among the groups most likely to resist inoculation, experts say. According to Toronto Public Health, Black residents of African and Caribbean origin have both the highest rates of COVID-19 as well as the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy.

"A lot of it has to do with the erosion of trust based on past conduct and past bad experiences … with what I'll call the health-care establishment," said Mayor John Tory last week, while announcing an enhanced, targeted strategy to protect Black residents from COVID-19.

The first town hall will discuss the "historical and contemporary issues of trustworthiness" around vaccines, while later events will focus on topics ranging from how vaccines work to misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The Black Scientists' Task Force includes immunologists, family doctors, naturopathic doctors, nurses and mental health experts, among others.

You can register for the virtual town hall meetings at this page.

Toronto’s northwest Jane and Finch neighbourhood, home to a high proportion of Black residents and other people of colour, has consistently been among the city's worst COVID-19 hot spots. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Confronting rumours and misinformation

According to a November survey by Toronto Public Health, 16 per cent of residents say they will not get the COVID-19 vaccine, with another 11 per cent undecided.

The city has not yet collected race-based data on vaccine hesitancy, but in an email, Toronto's Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey said the city "will soon be conducting further research on this important area."

Khenti, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla School of Public Health, says he has encountered a surprising number of Black residents who said they don't plan on getting the vaccine.

Public health experts have also expressed concern over conspiracy theories swirling on social media related to the vaccine and its development, especially among visible minority communities.

Among Black residents, Khenti is particularly concerned about rumours that the vaccine will alter the recipient's DNA, or infect them with small doses of the novel coronavirus or HIV.

Khenti said that combating distrust and misinformation will require trust and empathy, and not merely a barrage of facts and science.

"It's pointing that out in a respectful and validating way, without threatening or saying, 'You're crazy to think what you think,'" Khenti said.

The task force will rely on the use of culturally appropriate metaphors, expressions and acknowledgement of the historical experiences of different groups. 

Khenti noted those efforts could vary widely depending on the particular person or community. A vaccine hesitant person of East African descent will require different messaging compared to someone from the Caribbean, for example.

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.