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There is a lot of talk of vaccine hesitancy in neighbourhoods of colour, but a massive mobile clinic at Black Creek Community Health Centre shows what can happen when communities lead
As a physician working on the COVID frontlines in mobile testing, it has been a year of witnessing the vulnerable punished and watching the energy and lifeblood drawn out of healthcare and essential workers.
But on a recent Saturday, there was a ray of light. I worked for the first time as a vaccinator at a massive mobile clinic set up at Black Creek Community Health Centre near Jane and Finch.
There had only been a few days notice and no one really knew how many people would show up. There is a lot of talk of vaccine hesitancy in communities of colour, after all.
When I arrived, a huge white tent was set up on a basketball court behind an apartment building. And people were lined up as far as the eye could see.
Some were community elders who had brought chairs, some had even come with their own interpreters. So much for vaccine hesitancy – which to me sounds like a way to blame communities of colour in COVID hot spots for low vaccination rates. By the end of the day, some 1,300 people who call the Jane and Finch area home would be vaccinated. By the end of the weekend, 3,000 people had been vaccinated.
Most were from Vietnamese, Filipino, LatinX and Black communities and most were underpaid, unprotected essential workers who have no sick leave and little space in which to isolate themselves. There was a DJ spinning outside, and I found myself dancing as I held up my “vaccine available” signs to welcome the community members for a jab.
We worked in many languages – Vietnamese, Spanish, Tamil, Arabic – connecting, laughing and communicating in the remarkable way that we can in this city. I am camera shy, but I agreed to let many of the younger people make vaccine videos to share with friends who were afraid to come. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
Toronto has a rich network of dynamic community health centres, embedded in neighbourhoods and trusted by people. Black Creek brought out thousands with a few days work because they can build on the foundation they’ve already laid by providing care and vital information in these times of despair, through resident community ambassadors and community healthcare workers.
In this case, University Health Network (UHN) and Women’s College Hospital (WCH) put vaccine delivery in the hands of Black community leaders such as Cheryl Prescod and Angela Robertson, with support from Luwam Ogbaselassie of UHN.
In the face of neglect and discrimination hope lies in the resilience, resourcefulness and advocacy of these community beacons. When institutions like hospitals follow community leadership beautiful synergy happens.
This could happen every day in all the city’s hotspot communities. This is what will end the pandemic.
This was just one weekend, one clinic but it showed what can happen when communities lead.
Hospital partners and public health teams need reliable vaccine supply and that supply needs to be funneled to the neighbourhoods that need it most.
In the face of a provincial policy vacuum, community health centres and organizations, are on the move towards ending the pandemic. These community leaders need resources to sustain this movement and hospitals need the humility to follow their lead.
Suvendrini Lena is a neurologist and senior medical advisor to pandemic programs at Women’s College Hospital.