Uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine among Black people in the UK was impacted by conspiracy theories that it could be used to control the population, according to new research, as experts called for better public health messaging for ethnic minority communities.
A study conducted by academics at Kingston University found that contemporary and historical racial injustice and inequality had fuelled hesitancy among Black people to come forward for their jab.
Researchers said these inequalities had fuelled a reluctance to engage with Covid-19 public health measures such as the wearing of face masks, social distancing, testing and uptake of the vaccine.
The study involved interviews with 28 participants of Black African and Caribbean heritage and examined the underlying issues that informed behaviour during the pandemic. They were interviewed during the second nationwide lockdown, which took place in the last few months of 2020 and 2021.
Professor of Health Psychology at Kingston University, Tushna Vandrevala, who led the research, said the interviews revealed that “mistrust” caused a belief that the disease and vaccine were “intentionally” harming the Black community.
This reluctance was heightened by issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement and scandals such as Windrush, which saw hundreds of Commonwealth citizens wrongly detained or deported by UK immigration authorities, she added.
Prof Vandrevala told the Standard: “The participants said these issues of mistrust were not only about them, their family or Covid-19, but about a wider, global issue that everyone needed to stand up to.”
She said the voices raised against these injustices led to people lacking trust in measures to curb the spread of the virus.
“The voices raised against these injustices made people feel empowered to make their voices heard and take their own decisions about how they reacted to the pandemic. We cannot ignore the hundreds of years of colonialism and the fact people have felt discriminated against and feel powerless. It’s a huge social justice issue.”
She said that some participants held “sinister” conspiratorial beliefs that “powerful people and powerful sources were trying to control them”. These differed from previous conspiracy theories.
“Previously, it was that a person had these conspiratorial beliefs that were disease specific. This was the first time we really saw an entire community having the viewpoint that the vaccine or indeed COVID-19 was going to do harm to their community in particular,” Prof Vandrevala said.
The study also found that public health messaging was confusing, inconsistent, and unrelatable. Participants referred to a lack of senior Black figures delivering guidance and expressed upset that lockdown rules did not consider their living and working environments.
There was also a general feeling that health inequalities were not a part of the public health agenda, the study said.
“The messaging wasn’t representative of the Black community. It did not reflect their lives, the realities of being a migrant or indeed the difficulties they faced in following the guidance with their precarious working conditions,” Prof Vandrevala said.
“The media, the government consistently drew attention to the high rates of Covid-19 among their communities, which made them feel alienated from other communities, or highlighted the low vaccine rates among the Black community, without offering explanations for the often-justified reasons behind this,” she added.
Dr Kristin Hanson, a lecturer in social psychology at Kingston University, Hanson greater endorsement of conspiracy theories in the Black community was likely to be the result of the ethnic minority communities being disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the first peak of the pandemic suggested that deprived areas in England and Wales were twice as hard hit compared to wealthier areas.
“People from ethnic communities were the largest percentage of the population that were dying from the disease and that put them in the spotlight and made them feel stigmatised. They then had to rationalise and make sense of this. Suddenly, there’s this situation of perceived uncontrollability and one of the reasons people believe in conspiracy theories is it gives them some feeling of control in an uncontrollable situation.”
The study showed more needs to be done to engage people early in the process, should another pandemic arise, Prof Vandrevala said.
“We need to build relationships with communities rather than individuals. People working in settings within these communities can use resources to change hearts and minds of those having doubts and help them understand what is being asked of them.
“That way, we can begin to address the inequalities facing Black communities and make health information more accessible to them. We need to find new ways of building trust within our diverse communities.”
In addition to bringing “voices to the table”, government bodies, public health officials and the media need to acknowledge there were “past misgivings”, which need to be considered for trust to be “rectified, built on and made”.
Future research into conspiracy theories should also address public health sense-making in diverse communities, she added. “If we look at the evidence around conspiracy theories, it’s very much mainstream focused. It’s focused on conspiratorial beliefs in the white majority group. We don’t understand sense-making in different communities,” she said.
The study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).