In past years, Kulpreet Singh’s neighbourhood group chats online have been filled with political discussion and questions about lost cats.
These days, however, phone app WhatsApp – a messaging platform – are full of inquiries the Lower Mainland resident never thought he would see.
“In my neighbourhood group, someone posted this morning, asking, does anyone know if there are any vaccination pop ups today?” Singh, the founder of the South Asian Mental Health Alliance, told Black Press Media by phone Thursday (April 29), just hours after Fraser Health suspended its much-maligned system of pop-up clinics.
“I would never imagine someone would be asking where to get vaccinated in my local neighbourhood group,” he said, adding that ideally, these details would be listed on the health authority website, with dates and the requirements, as well as a registration process and updates on daily spaces.
SFU professor Valorie Crooks agrees. The creator of the COVID-19 Risks in British Columbia’s Neighbourhoods project said that the “whisper network,” or informal spaces being used to share information, wasn’t working.
While vaccines were brought to high-risk neighbourhoods, Crooks said, what remained lacking was transparency.
The whole idea of a pop-up clinic may be flawed from the get-go. Pop-up shops, she noted, do rely on the idea of surprise and scarcity, but that might not be the route British Columbians want health officials to go.
Fraser Health ran 10 pop-up vaccine clinics, beginning April 24. At least four – Cloverdale, Surrey North, South Langley Township and Port Coquitlam – were announced only after they had already began, with many people standing in line for hours.
Fraser Health said 6,000 people were vaccinated, but apologized for their lack of communication about the clinics.
“People want to get a better understanding of how do we actually choose these sites? And also, how are we informing people about the availability of this,” Crooks said.
However, she sympathized with an attempt by Fraser Health to do what many had been asking; go into high-risk neighbourhoods directly.
“I think that having are doubling down on the idea of bringing vaccines into communities where the rates are high, or risks are high, is a positive thing,” Crooks said. “This is something that many public health experts across Canada and internationally have said is an effective strategy.”
But even as Fraser Health tried to push down some barriers to vaccination, Crooks said they created others by not spreading the word in a way that allowed all people, including vulnerable frontline workers, to access immunizations.
Singh said that the pop-ups likely damaged confidence in the vaccine rollout altogether.
“What I heard on site was an individual in my network, who went on-site at around 7:40 a.m. in the morning, he waited six hours to get his vaccination,” Singh said, noting that this person, like many others, received conflicting information about the number of doses available and who would get one.
Singh is glad that Fraser Health suspended their pop-up clinics to look for more equitable solutions. While both the health ministry and Fraser Health have said they’ve been in contact with the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities in hot spot zones, Singh said that bureaucracy has often gotten in the way of that.
While there is little to no AstraZeneca in B.C. right now, health officials have said they will rethink the program when supply returns. Singh hopes that will involve using mobile clinics, similar to a program in Surrey, or family doctors to get the word out to their patients.
But Singh cautioned against making volunteers shoulder the burden of vaccine education and access like Toronto has done with the Vaccine Hunters Twitter account.
“Those groups, vaccine hunters, they’re putting labor to help and support people’s health and well being, whereas large systems already exist of people who are being paid to do these jobs.”
The rumours and lack of concrete information, Singh said, has only amplified the feelings of trauma and exhaustion already felt by many in the South Asian community.
“I’m concerned right now about frontline and essential workers, and especially new immigrants and international students who are going through different waves of trauma because of their family situation and home situation in India, with the second wave of COVID, and the farmer protests,” he said.
“Then on top of that working frontline, during the pandemic here in Canada, and then them not even able to get a vaccine in an equitable way is not really fair. The least we could do to respect them and the sacrifices that they’re making working on the front line is to make sure that they get the vaccine.”
B.C. is asking all adults to register for vaccines at https://www.getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca, even if they already received their first dose prior to registering. People in their 50s are being contacted to book immunization appointments in the coming days, while people ages 30 or 40 and up can get vaccinated at pharmacies.
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