Housed in former lumber yards, converted restaurants and church halls, London’s community centres are at the heart of the effort to persuade the capital’s minority groups to take up the Covid-19 vaccine.
From organising one-on-one phone calls to mobile vaccination vans, these unassuming centres are combatting vaccine hesitancy by addressing its root causes: conspiracy theories, historical suspicion of authority and concerns about side effects.
“Not taking a vaccine is like going to a war without a bullet proof vest,” says David Idiabana, Chief Executive of the Newham African-Caribbean Resource Centre.
“But there are so many conspiracy theories within the African community. It’s disheartening to see people view the vaccine in such terms.”
Social media has amplified wild rumours and misinformation swirling around Covid-19 vaccinations.
Alfonso Grazette, a retired transport manager, is worried about having a jab after reading a document he found on the internet. “The vaccine could be an excuse to get a chip into a person,” he says. “I’m part of a pan-African WhatsApp group that shares these ideas.”
Mr Idiabana lists the vaccine rumours he’s heard from members of the community: “They think the vaccine will maim, kill or sterilise black people. These ideas circulate mainly on WhatsApp but are also starting to emerge on Facebook.”
Francis Augustine, a Taekwondo instructor at the Newham centre, has come in to chat about the vaccine.
While Mr Augustine doesn’t believe many of the conspiracy theories, he understands why black communities’ trust in the authorities has eroded over the years.
“Look at the Windrush scandal - of course they’re going to mistrust the government who’s telling them to have the vaccine.”
Through both one-on-one and group sessions, David Idiabana is working hard to dispel myths by helping people source accurate and trusted information themselves.
“It is important to build trust with these communities – instead of instructing them to take the vaccine, I make the information about the vaccine more accessible.”
Chief Executive of the Black Health Initiative, Heather Nelson agrees: “Continuing to provide information, be it positive or not around the jabs is important to instil trust among those, who for various reasons may have distrust for the medical profession,” she says.
Jenny Lanyero is a team manager at Brent Health Matters, which aims to address health inequalities in the north London borough. Her team goes out into areas where uptake of the vaccine is low to listen to people’s concerns.
She says: “I remember once a man asked me: ‘Have you not considered there’s something amiss here? Why am I, as a black man, at the front of the queue to get the vaccine when I’ve been at the bottom of every other list for years?’”
Eight percent of adults in London have reported being reluctant to take the Covid-19 vaccine, a higher percentage than most other regions in England. The latest Opinions and Lifestyle survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics shows that black adults have the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy compared with other ethnic groups.
A recent study about vaccine hesitancy in the black community called for the medical profession to do more to encourage trust in this community by providing clear information in non-technical language.
“We speak to people honestly about the vaccine. I just share my personal experiences - for example, I had to take paracetamol for my sore arm after the jab. We just tell them how it is,” says Ms Lanyero.
She has also participated in an initiative to bring the vaccine to some of the hardest-to-reach communities with a weekly visit from a vaccination van.
Every Thursday, the van comes to the Brent Somali Community Centre. Muhaideen Adbullahi, one of the centre’s directors, has to make sure that the parking spot directly outside the centre is free, leading to some tough negotiations.
“Would it be okay if you parked somewhere else brother?” Mr Adullahi says through a rolled down window to a man in a grey Ford Focus. “We’ve got a vaccination van coming, and if it’s right outside the centre more people are likely to see it.”
Emblazoned with NHS logos and the motto “Every Vaccination Gives Us Hope”, the van rolls in. Vaccines are administered without appointment and a steady stream of people ask about what’s happening as they walk by.
The Brent centre’s other director, Ikran Abdullahi, says language barriers are “a hundred per cent the reason why” people do not want to take the vaccine. “I speak to people in the Somali language, so that they can make sense of the jargon.”
One person who Ms Abdullahi has persuaded to take the vaccine is care worker Nadia Mohammed.
“I was scared, before, but speaking to Ikran put me at ease,” she says, adjusting her headscarf.
Dressed in blue scrubs, Intisar Ibrahim, the nurse on board the vaccination van, spends the afternoon gently trying to drum up recruits for the jab. Greeting everyone near the centre with an “Asalaam-u-alaikum,” and a smile, she receives a mixed bag of responses.
“Walaikum-as-salaam, sister,” replies one man. “No, I’ve not had my vaccine. Allah will protect me.”
A few times, people express interest in getting vaccinated but lose it when they hear that it’s the AstraZeneca jab on offer.
“Haven’t you got Pfizer? Don’t you watch the news? This one gives you blood clots,” says one man.
But many people turn up to the van keen to be vaccinated.
One of them is Jordano Gabshe, in his mid-thirties. “I’ve been waiting for over two months,” he says. “Everybody wants the vaccine and I’m so happy I was able to get it today.” He elbow bumps the volunteers, says several thank yous and returns a few hours later with a friend who also wants to get the jab.
In Walworth, South London, the East African Community Centre sits anonymously in a converted restaurant.
“We’ve all had our [vaccines]”, says Kamal Abdi, the coordinator, gesturing round the room, where everyone sits on black cushioned dining chairs. Two of the six men brandish their vaccination cards. “It’s just safer. We’ve seen a lot of our community take the vaccine and Abdul Qadir, who isn’t here today, has made information leaflets for people.”
When a younger man enters and tries to talk about why he does not want to take the vaccine, the others are alarmed. They hustle him to one side and explain that there is a journalist in the room.
Any further questions are quickly quashed. It appears they think having a member of the community who isn’t entirely sure about taking the vaccine will reflect badly on them.
“Communities want to be seen doing the best they can for a number of reasons, racism being one,” says Heather Nelson of the Black Health Initiative. “We received racist emails at the BHI back when the Brazilian variant was announced and going round.”
To improve vaccine uptake, “we should have local bases within communities for people to take up the offer of the jab and these should continue to allow those who are saying ‘no, not now’ to access the jab if they change their mind,” Ms Nelson says.