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To cut through COVID-19 disinformation, Ottawa urged to make sure vaccination info also reaches newcomers

December 22, 2020

The misinformation tends to go like this: “A vaccine will change your DNA.”

Or … “COVID-19 vaccination is a scheme Bill Gates cooked up to insert microchips into our body.”

Other times, there’ll be a meme using an image of Drake that suggests getting coronavirus is safer than getting the shot.

Anti-vaccine propaganda and misinformation comes in multiple languages over a spectrum of social media, shared widely among community groups, social circles and families. The messaging targets everyone under the sun.

Advocates say Canadian health authorities need to make accurate vaccination facts accessible to newcomers, who can be susceptible to these campaigns due to language and cultural barriers.

“We have to make sure we cut through the misinformation out there. There are a lot of unknowns. You had two people getting allergic reactions to the vaccine. It doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you, but you see information getting distorted,” says Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI, a Toronto immigrant settlement service agency.

“Newcomers often rely on information from their home countries and may have a disconnect with what’s happening here in Canada due to language barriers. Some have had troubled history with the health system back home. They need a trusted source of information.”

According to the latest census data, almost 22 per cent of Canadians are foreign-born immigrants, with more than 70 per cent reporting a language other than English or French as their mother tongue.

There have been a few medical studies in Canada that compared immunization rates among immigrants and their Canadian-born counterparts, but the results have been mixed. One study by University of Alberta researchers found participating immigrant mothers from Bhutanese refugee, South Asian and Chinese communities “demonstrated universal trust” in vaccines for themselves and their children. A couple of studies by the Public Health Agency of Canada and McGill University in adults about flu vaccines identified a lower uptake amongst immigrants.

“ I don’t think we need to be concerned there’s more resistance from immigrant groups,” says Dr. Astrid Guttman, chief science officer of Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“But it’s a new vaccine. As with all new things, it needs to be well explained to people. All materials have to be made accessible for sure.”

Health Canada has had its vaccine information translated into 22 languages: from Arabic to Cree, Ojibwe, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog and Urdu, on top of English and French.

This week, in response to a Star inquiry about whether foreign nationals in Canada are eligible for free COVID-19 vaccinations, a spokesperson said the vaccine will be made available to everyone in Canada for whom it is approved and recommended for use, whether or not they are citizens.

“It’s been my experience that the most profound impact of information comes from a trusted source for newcomers. When we try the more passive modality, such as email blasts, sending out information, even translated information, the uptake is not nearly as good,” says Dr. Meb Rashid, medical director of the Crossroads refugee clinic at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital.

“My advice is you need to reach out to the community organizations, faith-based groups, primary-care clinics and people where there’s already an existing relationship and trust has been built.”

The mode of communication also matters, said Calla, because some newcomers do not have computers and heavily rely on mobile apps such as WhatsApp for information.

“Mass email outreach may not be enough,” he said, adding that translated information needs to come from a centralized health source to ensure consistent messaging in order to help newcomers make informed decisions about vaccinations.

The pandemic has exposed the social and economic inequities, as COVID-19 has taken a heavier toll on racialized, newcomer and low-income groups.

Advocates say health authorities should consider prioritizing vaccinations for these communities once front-line health-care workers, long-term care residents and other priority groups receive their shots.

“The communities that have been very hard hit have been very much related to the kind of workplaces, essential work and how many people are living in a home. Those are the big risk factors,” said Dr. Guttmann.

“Hopefully, as the provinces have to make these choices, some of these communities will be prioritized because of the risk factors associated with their occupations.”

An Angus Reid poll this week found 48 per cent of Canadians would like to get vaccinated as soon as possible, with 31 per cent saying they would wait but eventually get it.

To reach “herd immunity,” 70 per cent of the population has to be immunized by vaccination and/or by natural infection.