When people are afraid of something, they often latch on to bizarre theories about it, or completely switch off.
That’s the view of Hanniyah Bukhari, 19, who lives in Bradford and is one of 20 young people trained as “Covid advocates” to tackle the misinformation and myths circulating in their communities about the coronavirus vaccines.
Their aim is to fight confusion with facts and rebuild trust with vaccine sceptics among Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
She wants to help people to make an informed choice about having a Covid-19 vaccine, in the face of mounting concern that the uptake in BAME groups won’t be as high or rapid as the white population.
“When something like coronavirus happens out of the blue, it results in huge fear and sometimes people believe in the most bizarre things to suppress that fear,” Bukhari told HuffPost UK.
“They are then believing that misinformation and thinking that a coronavirus vaccine is something to fear.”
Bukhari, who is studying clinical sciences at the University of Bradford, wanted to become a “Covid vaccine ambassador” to get the facts out in her community, and to build trust with those who are sceptical.
She believes it is important for conversations to start at home with parents and grandparents before taking the vaccine message to the wider community.
“When there is so much information happening, there is information overload which can push people into a state of fear or make them switch off completely,” she said.
“At the height of the pandemic, there were all sorts of myths circulating within the community – such as people saying not to get it done as it had a chip in it and you would be tracked.
“Another bizarre theory I heard was that the government was targeting the BAME community with the vaccine so they could keep an eye on them for racist reasons such as suspecting them of terrorism.
“For me, becoming a Covid advocate was about eradicating this information and making people realise that the scientists who have developed these coronavirus vaccines are doing this for the good of humanity.”
For me, becoming a Covid advocate was about eradicating this information and making people realise that the scientists who have developed these coronavirus vaccines are doing this for the good of humanityHanniyah Bukhari
Bukhari told HuffPost UK she had tried to explain to people that no one was tracking them – and remind them that many have already had multiple vaccines in the past without negative consequences.
“I had sceptics in my own family and I have managed to turn a few of them and changed their rationale to the point where one person who was totally against the vaccine has now had it,” she said.
“The community is a very powerful force and getting through to BAME individuals will really broaden the success of the coronavirus vaccine rollout.”
It was realising the powerful force of young people forging trust with their own communities that led to the creation of the “Covid Lead” programme to challenge misconceptions within some Black and Asian communities.
Neesie, an organisation in Bradford which supports single mothers, created the unique programme for BAME young people to upskill them to become Covid public advocates to dispel coronavirus myths with leadership skills.
Neesie has recruited 20 young people aged between 18 and 25 who are from Black, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi backgrounds, and teamed up with Bradford’s university and hospital to teach them about Covid and arm them with facts about the vaccine.
The plan was for the young people to go out into their communities to spread awareness – but, due to the lockdown, they are speaking to community groups through online platforms to eradicate myths and misconceptions.
“These BAME young people are living in inner city areas and many of them are the first from their family to have gone to university,” said Noreen Khan, lead programme director and founder of Neesie.
“The majority are from pharmaceutical and nursing backgrounds from the university so will be taken seriously and trusted by people from their communities.
“Now they have been upskilled on the background of viruses and given coronavirus specific knowledge, they can have Covid community conversations and challenge misconceptions.”
Khan told HuffPost UK that the young people have been rebuilding trust that was lost due to the way coronavirus messaging was handled by the government – particularly during the early part of the pandemic. And she admitted that language barriers have been an issue.
“There has been so much disconnect between government and public health and most people were confused by the government briefings, which would often oppose what public health experts had said.
“By the time these messages got to those with little or no English, they became even more confusing, so people disengaged and this meant the vulnerable became even harder to reach.
“People on the ground were so disorientated by the confusing and mixed messages coming from government, I think a lot of them, particularly BAME people, just switched off.
“Their only stance as a protest was to say they will not take the vaccine.”
By the time these messages got to those with little or no English, they became even more confusingNoreen Khan
However, Khan says the Covid Lead programme is already making a huge difference. She revealed the result is that around eight people a day are turning from being vaccine hesitant to pro vaccine.
Changing the mind of her Ghanaian mum has been a proud achievement for Blessing Pokuaa, 20, who is studying clinical science and medicine at the University of Bradford and is one of the 20 young people trained as Covid advocates.
“Being from the African community, I knew there were some reservations about the coronavirus vaccines,” she told HuffPost UK.
“There has been a long history of misusing and abusing the BAME community when it comes to medication. Some people felt they were going to be used as experiments to see if the vaccine worked and then if it did, the vaccine would be given to other people.
“I came up against a lot of vaccine mistrust and even my own family members were sceptical of it. But I knew it stemmed from a long history, so I had to be sensitive.”
“I explained that the reason there was a government campaign to urge BAME people to have the vaccine was because the BAME community was dying at higher rates,” she said.
Pokuaa says there is so much information available from different sources that people are not able to differentiate between what is good and what is fake.
There has been a long history of misusing and abusing the BAME community when it comes to medicationBlessing Pokuaa
She also feels there is a technological barrier, especially for older generations of minority ethnic people.
“I want to help settle their fears and give them the right information,” she said. “I tell them that it is entirely their choice whether they have the vaccine, but if they choose to have it, it is perfectly safe and their fears are unfounded.
“They can make a choice with the facts instead of being scared.
“When I first told my mum that I would be having the vaccine when it was offered to me, her initial reaction was: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. You don’t know what’s in it.’
“But now, her attitude is different. Being able to change your mum’s mind is a real achievement. She hasn’t had the vaccine herself yet as she is under 50. But I think she will have it when the time comes, especially if I coax her a bit more.”
A star-studded advert featuring celebrities including Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Romesh Ranganathan has been shown across the UK’s main commercial TV channels to urge people from ethnic minority communities to take up the vaccine when they’re invited.
The video was coordinated by Citizen Khan creator Adil Ray.
Dr Samia Latif, a consultant in communicable disease control and chair of the BAME network for Public Health England, told HuffPost UK: “The messenger can actually be more important than the message itself. It has to come from a trusted person.
“Someone who looks like you and speaks the same language and has the same cultural or faith background as you is often better at relaying the message and being trusted.”
During the first lockdown, Dr Latif recorded a podcast in Urdu to tackle language barriers around coronavirus messaging.
But she says she now feels the language barrier is less of an issue as many individuals and organisations have made information available in different languages.
Dr Latif stresses that she does not speak for Public Health England.
“It is fear of the unknown and the rumour mongering needs to be quashed by someone they trust,” she said.
“That can be a BAME health professional or a community champion, or it could be someone from a local faith group. It just needs to be someone the community trusts as this will make them more likely to take the messages on board.
“The messages also need to be not just written in different languages, but use simple, clear language with pictures and infographics.
“There have been a lot of language translations but are they reaching people and do they know where to find them? There is so much information, many don’t know where to begin.
“People need help in navigating the minefield of information out there and knowing what is from a trusted source.”
Someone who looks like you and speaks the same language and has the same cultural or faith background as you is often better at relaying the message and being trustedDr Samia Latif
For some Muslim people, concerns about the vaccine centre around whether it is against their religion or not.
Yusuf Shabbir, an Imam in Blackburn, is a religious advisor on the website Islamicportal.co.uk, which has been advising the community on Covid-related matters since the start of the pandemic – including about burials, mosques and Ramadan.
He told HuffPost UK a significant number of Muslims rely on the site’s information on whether things are halal or not.
“There are a huge range of concerns people have specifically on the vaccine,” he said. “These include ethical concerns, moral concerns and medical concerns.
“Our role in this is to provide information from a religious perspective.”
Shabbir explained that they carefully researched the two vaccines currently being rolled out in the UK – the Pfizer and the Oxford AstraZeneca jabs – as well as the Moderna vaccine which has been approved by the UK but is not yet available. They have concluded that all three all halal.
“The three vaccines approved for the UK are lawful for Muslims and they should not be concerned from a religious point of view,” he said.
“We will engage with the manufacturers of any other vaccines that get approved for the UK in the future.”
He added: “If people have any other concerns about the coronavirus vaccines, they should speak to the experts in those areas about them.”