Two months after Britain rolled out the world’s first COVID-19 vaccination programme, nearly 13 million people have received their first jab of the Pfizer or the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. However, the number of South Asians vaccinated in the UK is one of the lowest, not because of discrimination but due to their refusal to take the vaccine.
It is ironic that South Asians, who have been among the worst affected by the pandemic in the UK, have been the most reticent in coming forward to take the vaccine. Conspiracy theories on social media and a trust deficit of the government are being blamed for the low uptake of the vaccine among the community. WhatsApp and Facebook messages on a variety of obscure reasons why the vaccine should not be taken have gone viral.
The most prominent disinformation campaign on social media plays on religious beliefs and focuses on the vaccine content claiming that it contains beef, pork and alcohol, making it impossible for Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs to take it. Other fake news going round is that the vaccine makes you sterile or infertile, and changes your DNA. Or, that it even inserts a tracking chip into you or worst of all, it contains poison as part of the government’s grand plan to kill off ethnic minorities.
The prevalence of these utterly irrational theories is much higher among South Asian immigrants because of their phenomenal use of social media and their strong internal links and connections with their countries of origins. Language and cultural barriers play a part, as does the fact that Indians are more prone to superstition and stigma.
Healthcare workers — among whom there are a disproportionately large number of South Asians — and the over 80-year-olds, were the first to be invited for the vaccine, and a recent survey has shown that vaccine-refusal is highest among Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities. While 80 per cent of the over 80s White people have been vaccinated, only 60 per cent of South Asians over 80s have taken their first jab, and the figure is even lower with only 40 per cent of Black people over 80s, who have come forward for their vaccine.
The government-run National Health Service (NHS), which is responsible for administering the free vaccine, is so worried about South Asians rejecting the vaccine that they have launched a drive to counter the fake news. Appealing to role models, influencers, community leaders and religious leaders to help them debunk the myths, they have encouraged them to take the jab on camera as a way of endorsing the vaccine.
The NHS has started a UK Vaccine Taskforce that includes doctors, who can address concerns and answer questions in Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and Sylheti as well as in English. Information leaflets have also been written in these five languages and are being shared in the community, in some cases using the same social media networks, which have become the bane of the NHS for the disinformation it shares.
A five-minute video has been coordinated by Adil Ray, creator and star of comedy show Citizen Khan, in which South Asians celebrities including comedians Romesh Ranganathan, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, TV actor Shobna Gulati, cricketer Moeen Ali, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, former chairman of the Conservative Party Baroness Warsi, journalists and TV personalities all endorse the vaccine. The video has been posted online and shown on national TV channels and local Asian language channels.
“From the very beginning, British Asian and Black communities were told they were perhaps the most vulnerable with a disproportionate number of cases and even deaths. But nothing was really done about it and that was quite confusing for a lot of the community. So, we felt that we had to try and take the lead and dispel some of the myths,” said Adil Ray.
Gurudwaras, temples and mosques have been pressed into service to help bust the lies and encourage immunization. Most vaccines are administered in local sports and leisure centres, which are currently closed in the country’s third national lockdown, and a few temples, mosques and gurudwaras have allowed the NHS to convert their premises into vaccination centres to instill confidence among the faithful.
More than a 100 mosques across the country are preaching the vaccine benefits in their Friday sermons. “There should be no hesitation in taking the vaccine from a moral perspective. It is our ethical duty to protect ourselves and others from harm,” said Qari Asim, chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which has organised the campaign.
While the first wave of COVID-19 from February 2020 was bad, the curve had flattened by May giving a respite in the summer. However, from September the numbers have again begun to climb and the second wave has been more severe with daily new cases of around 60,000 at its peak in January of this year and claiming more than one lakh lives. With nearly 20% of the population now vaccinated with the first dose and the number of new cases decreasing daily, perhaps the UK has turned the COVID corner.