“Black lives are so incredibly valuable and no effort must be lost to reduce the risk; you come from a culture where respect for others is a permanent value so protect your elderly because elders are encyclopedias for family and community and we have lost too many elders in the past year. The loss is immeasurable.”
Dr. Akwatu Khenti, Chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity
The City of Toronto has announced its Black Community COVID-19 Response Plan, which aims to provide enhanced and targeted services to Black Torontonians. The Targeted Equity Action Plan is a new initiative based on data released in late 2020 confirming Black people of African and Caribbean descent in the city face the highest rates of COVID-19 cases (26%) and vaccine hesitancy (30%). Mayor John Tory asserted the importance of the initiative during the announcement. "Throughout the pandemic, it has been clear that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted certain communities in our city, including Black residents. A targeted approach was necessary to not only ensure that those who need support are receiving it but to further stop the spread of the virus.”
Mayor Tory added that the new grassroots initiative will address the systemic barriers that Black residents of Toronto often face when looking for support and services. To ensure effective implementation of the plan, the city Government involved experts and partnered with community agencies that are Black-led and primarily Black-serving. Doing so will hopefully reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in these communities while addressing vaccine distrust within the Black community.
A task force entitled the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, was formed in partnership with TAIBU Community Health Centre in December 2020. According to Dr. Akwatu Khenti, Chair of the task force, “The ultimate objective of the task force is to enhance testing and vaccination rates, and reduce hospitalization and sickness rates.” Comprising 10 members, including experts of African-Caribbean descent on various aspects of vaccine development and public health, the task force is charged with public health messaging, review, and public health recommendations regarding COVID-19 testing and the "vaccine acceptance tendency" of the Black Community. The task force is expected to deliver its final reports of findings and recommendations by April 2021. Acting in collaboration with several community organizations, the task force will also organize a series of free virtual town hall meetings for Toronto’s Black communities starting February 13 and continuing into March.
The Black Health Alliance (BHA), the Canadian Multicultural Inventors Museum and Harriet Tubman Institute, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, and TAIBU are among the renowned community organizations the task force is collaborating with. According to Deputy Mayor Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre), Chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee, "The City’s Black Community COVID Response Plan is built on partnerships with well-known and established community agencies to ensure that the immunization concerns of residents in Black communities are addressed and they have access to the same essential social supports, and health and safety information as other communities.” Mayor Tory added, “One of the great advantages to partnering with experienced and well-established organizations that are known to principally serve the Black community, and are led by members of the Black community, is that they are accustomed to delivering these services without any form of racism or discrimination.”
Regarding efforts to ensure equity in COVID-19 vaccination, Dr. Khenti said, “It demands a complex public health intervention that deeply understands the dynamics of the community. We want to ensure that people who are facing high risk employ maximum prevention, have access, and utilize the tools that are at their disposal.” According to Dr. Khenti, the fact that vaccine hesitancy is high among the Black community has nothing to do with biology, but everything to do with social determinants that have been caused by systemic racism in the health system. He also cites the historical exploitation and harmful treatment of Black people by medical science, the dissemination of misinformation on the vaccine amplified by social media, and widespread incidents of anti-black racism in 2020 as contributing factors. Dr. Khenti continues, “This will be addressed through a multi-dimensional approach. One, by providing scientific information to combat the misinformation with respectful messaging that honours the audience and gives due emphasis to cultural cues and sensitivities.”
The online sessions will cover topics such as historical and contemporary issues of trustworthiness about vaccines and medical science that give Black people cause for concern, the functioning of vaccines, misinformation and conspiracy theories, mental health issues, consequences of COVID-19, and the risks and resilience of Black health professionals. The City of Toronto is going to increase wraparound support for Black Torontonians and their families to help them stay well through the pandemic physically, mentally, and emotionally.
A total of $6.8 million in funds have been allocated to provide the targeted outreach and to support the top 10 neighbourhoods with the highest percentage of Black Torontonians and highest COVID-19 positivity rates. This will be done in partnership with 12 Black-led, community-serving agencies that have been successful in enhancing physical, mental, and emotional support to the Black community. These agencies will provide a range of support services such as culturally responsive mental health supports, food access and food security, mobile and community-based testing, and access to health and safety information.