It was not until she turned up at work on the morning of December 9 that May Parsons realised she was going to receive the first dose of her Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine – just a day after she had administered the world’s first to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan.
As a nurse working in the respiratory wards at Coventry Hospital, Parsons was deemed at high risk of contracting the virus from the highly acute and sick patients she looks after.
“When I was told I could [get the jab], I was definitely relieved and felt very hopeful. It was like an answered prayer,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Her friend and colleague Debbie administered her first dose at 5pm on that Tuesday. “I had a slight discomfort on my left arm on the day after but was absolutely fine on the second day,” she said. On December 30, she received her second dose.
“I had the same discomfort on my left arm but didn’t stop me from working all day. I did feel slightly achey when I went to bed that night and took some paracetamol. I was back to my normal self the next day.”
Parsons describes a “huge relief” washing over her once it was over. “I still practise social distancing like before and wear my PPE all the time at work, but I feel better now. I feel very privileged and grateful – it shows our healthcare system cares, values and protects the welfare of frontline staff, from the ward managers and nurses to the cleaners and porters.”
Parsons says she had no qualms about getting vaccinated; after all, she witnesses the devastating effect of coronavirus on her patients each day. “I was ready and a firm believer of the science behind the vaccine,” she says. But she has spoken to other people from the Filipino community in the UK who have been less enthusiastic about the jab.
Across the country, there is growing evidence that reluctance towards the vaccine is worryingly high among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. A recent study by the Royal Society of Public Health found that 57% of people from BAME groups were likely to accept a Covid-19 vaccine compared to 79% of white respondents.
A separate poll by the Mile End Institute found more than a third of ethnic minority Londoners (39%) said they were likely to take the jab compared with 70% of white people in the capital. That is despite BAME communities continuing to be disproportionately hospitalised and killed by Covid-19.
Structural inequalities within Britain’s healthcare system and racist historical medical practices and attitudes are to blame for a widespread distrust among minority groups who have suffered poorer health outcomes throughout their lives.
Black and Asian communities have also been victim to the targeting of fake news and anti-vaccine disinformation, prompting fears surrounding the contents of the Covid-19 vaccines. Round-robin Whatsapp messages falsely claiming animal products such as pork or beef are in the vaccine, which would make it off limits for some religious groups, have been targeted at South Asian people, the BBC has reported.
In response, community and religious leaders, influencers and healthcare workers from BAME backgrounds and communities have come together to help fight against disinformation and raise awareness of the vaccines. Mosques are using their Friday sermons to urge Muslims to get the jab while church leaders are appealing to African Caribbean communities to sign up for the vaccine.
HuffPost UK spoke to NHS workers from Black and Asian backgrounds who have already received one, or both, or their doses to discuss what it was like to get vaccinated and how marginalised communities can be better empowered to make informed decisions about their health.
As Parson puts it very simply: “The vaccine saves lives and it will save theirs. Please have it.”
Dr Abdul Zubairu, GP in Southport, Merseyside
I decided to get vaccinated for a number of reasons. Hospitals are at breaking point and people want to be able to see their parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. From a personal point of view, I have not seen my parents now for over six months and this is difficult.
My personal experience of getting vaccinated was at a health centre in Southport. It was a very well-run operation. I booked in at reception and filled out a consent form, then I sat in a waiting room – socially distanced from others – and was called in after five minutes. In a consultation room, a GP took my consent form and checked my medical history.
I was then given the vaccine in my upper arm and asked to wait in the waiting room. I received the Pfizer vaccine so there is a requirement to be observed for 15 minutes after the vaccine, so I was fine to leave after the 15-minute period had elapsed. I was fine to drive home afterwards and had a slightly heavy and sore arm the next day. A few weeks ago I had the second dose and the process was exactly the same.
It doesn’t surprise me that BAME communities are less likely to take the vaccine. It’s natural to have some concerns regarding any medication, vaccination or health procedure you undergo. To anyone who is hesitant or unsure: speak to a healthcare professional and then make an informed decision. Personally, the risk of Covid-19 and hospitalisation or its longer-term effects (e.g. fatigue, breathlessness and “brain fog”) far outweigh any potential risks of having the vaccine.
The government, NHS and public health bodies need to proactively work with BAME communities to address any myths or anxieties about the vaccine. There is also evidence to show that when patients and doctors share the same race or ethnicity, health outcomes are improved. BAME healthcare professionals should speak out and endorse the vaccine, to amplify the voices of BAME people getting vaccinated and hopefully ease fear and build trust.
I would advocate that any individual who is offered the vaccine accepts the offer – in doing this you are protecting yourself, your loved ones and the community around you.
Dr Zirva Khan, GP in West Midlands
Although most people will survive this virus, it is unpredictable – even in the younger population, who could become really unwell from it. The world is upside-down right now, and I felt like the best option I had to help get back to normality and protect myself and my loved ones was to get the vaccine.
I was quite emotional when I was waiting for the vaccine, perhaps because so much hope is clinging to this vaccine being able to control its spread and devastation. Otherwise, it felt like just another jab – I felt a pinch at the time, my arm ached for a few days but otherwise I was good.
I hear the concerns that some people in BAME communities have regarding the vaccine. Many people may have different health beliefs, while some of it will be a lack of health awareness or education, or because of language and cultural barriers.
I had my personal apprehensions about the vaccine, as anyone would naturally. But as a medical professional, I know where to get trusted information so I made sure I was well informed before having the vaccine. To anyone who is hesitant, I would reassure them that it’s natural and that they’re not alone in feeling that way.
If you are someone who is eligible for the vaccine, please make sure you read about it from reputable sources to learn about why this vaccine is important for you. If you have any particular concerns, seek advice from your registered doctor about it. That way you can make the best decision for yourself!
Dr Kiran Rahim, paediatric doctor in London
Unfortunately, BAME communities have had poor experiences with the NHS – racism, marginalisation and poorer care. Not very many BAME people were involved in the vaccine trials and the information about vaccines has not been readily available in other languages. There has also been an overall distrust in the government’s handling in the pandemic.
I did share some of the concerns about the rapid manner in which the vaccine was developed, but the results that have emerged are very reassuring. The vaccine is deemed safe by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) and has a 95% efficacy rate. What science has achieved in the last 12 months is, quite frankly, amazing.
The process of getting vaccinated was quick and easy for me. As a frontline worker, I was offered this through my hospital which has a dedicated appointment-based vaccinated hub. Initial medical checks including temperature are done, then you’re explained which side effects to expect – sore arm, headache and nausea. After the jab, there’s a 15-minute monitoring period. It was all very smooth.
I think the fact that the government and pharmaceutical companies are exempt from liability makes a lot of people worry, but I would still recommend people from BAME groups to get the vaccine. We’re more at risk of getting Covid-19 and its complications. At the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA), we have tried to unify the voices of doctors and faith leaders to give a united message: we would recommend everyone gets vaccinated.
Dr Omon Imohi, GP in Merseyside
I’m eagerly waiting for the second dose of my vaccine. As a frontline worker, it is a moral and ethical obligation to get vaccinated. I took it to protect myself and to protect others.
Before I went to get vaccinated, I attended a few webinars about the Covid-19 vaccine and had extensive discussions with my colleagues – mostly of the BAME community – to discuss our concerns. By looking critically at the information about the vaccine, educating myself and asking questions, I was able to overcome my fears.
The figures from the studies showing low vaccine uptake did not surprise me. Historically there have been bad experiences in the BAME communities, with stories such as the Tuskegee experiments and the Kano scandal and more, so I was not surprised about the hesitation and lack of trust.
The government is creating some awareness, but it can do more. We need more representation, with Black authority figures sharing the right information and being at the forefront of the campaign. People tend to listen when people like them are involved. BAME experts should be given the platform to speak up and to give information in languages and ways that people can understand.
A lack of trust is one huge reason for the reluctance, so the government should work with religious and community leaders to demystify the myths and build trust in communities. People want to see relatable leaders who understand the plight and daily struggles sharing information. Finally, instead of judging people who are reluctant to take the vaccine, try to understand their fears and concerns – which can be expected in times like these – and then provide them with answers and evidence-based reasons to alleviate their fears.
Knowledge is power and I believe in empowering people with the right information to make an informed decision. I would advise people to get as much information [as possible] from a reliable source. I will share the facts I know and help dispel any wrong information or myths they hold and signpost reliable information sources.
It is OK to be concerned, but don’t just say no to the vaccine without clarifying your concerns, asking questions and empowering yourself with enough authentic information to make an informed decision. I’ve seen the impact of Covid-19 over the past 10 months. This is a great shot at fighting this pandemic. We all need to work together.