Town halls may increase vax rate in Montreal's Black community

'It’s important people see themselves reflected in the conversation.'

The Montreal Gazette 4 minute read September 17, 2021

by: Jesse Feith

With COVID-19 vaccination rates still lower among Montreal’s Black communities, the city’s public health department teamed with local organizations to host an online town hall for residents this week.

The idea was to let people ask questions about the vaccine in a safe space and address any lingering concerns they had.

What struck Sharon Nelson most about the meeting, compared to similar events in the past, was people’s openness to discussing those concerns  —  something that hasn’t always been the case.

“I think that’s a very good first step forward,” Nelson, the first vice-president of the Jamaica Association Of Montreal, said on Thursday.

“It lets us know that people are really thinking it through and aren’t shy to ask their questions anymore, because they genuinely want to know more.”

With the pandemic’s fourth wave hitting Montreal, the association is one of several Black community groups partnering with public health this month to raise awareness and try to boost vaccination rates.

In addition to Wednesday’s town hall, a “block party” themed drop-in vaccination clinic will be held in front of the Plaza Côte-des-Neiges on Saturday. To address some of the fears organizers had felt in the community, posters for the event also specify it’s open to anyone, “irrespective of immigration status.”

Later, on Sept. 25, a health fair will be held in Montreal North, one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods during the pandemic’s previous waves, where people will be invited to discuss the vaccine will local health care professionals and experts.

Another town hall meeting is also in the works for October.

The common thread through all the events  —  and perhaps the most important part, said Nelson —  is that they’re organized by grassroots organizations and involve Black leaders, doctors, nurses and experts.

“We want to improve the vaccination rate but also improve trust, and that’s something that’s been broken for a long time in terms of health care and people of colour,” Nelson said.

“It’s important people see themselves reflected in the conversation,” she added. “And this gives us an opportunity to put medical professionals who are Black at the forefront and to say it’s not a system thing, it’s not a government thing, it’s a health thing and we really care about you.”

Dr. Farah Désiré, a family doctor at Hôpital Notre-Dame who advises the city’s public health department on matters of race and equality, echoed Nelson’s point.

Désiré noted it’s the community groups that first approached public health to put something together, not the other way around.

“Leaders in the community want to get the message (about vaccination) across, and it’s important people hear it from someone they can identify with,” she said.

Désiré said public health doesn’t have specific race-based data on vaccination coverage, but said it’s the city’s most racially diverse neighbourhoods that are struggling with the lowest vaccination rates.

As of Thursday, 84 per cent of Montrealers 12 and older were fully vaccinated. In Montreal North, for comparison, that number falls to 70 per cent.

Désiré pointed out that many of the same socio-economic conditions and inequalities that made the neighbourhoods COVID-19 hot spots in earlier waves have now contributed to lower vaccination coverage.

But she feels strongly the coverage will continue to increase, especially with the more targeted and inclusive approach being used.

At Wednesday’s town hall, she said, she noticed a person who had participated in a similar discussion in June. They still had concerns, but the fact they showed up again shows the effort is making a difference.

“You can really feel now there’s a will to get vaccinated, but there’s still some mistrust,” Désiré said. “That’s what we need to address in some of these last pockets of people who aren’t yet vaccinated.”