To address vaccine hesitancy among Black & Indigenous Canadians, the government must act on racism in healthcare

Hannah Strasdin

Despite being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, many Black and Indigenous Canadians are hesitant to receive the vaccine. They have every right to be. 

As the government enacts its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, it must tackle vaccine hesitancy among Black and Indigenous Canadians by addressing racism and colonialism, past and present, in the healthcare system.

Historically, Black and Indigenous communities have been mistreated and experimented on within the Canadian healthcare system. In residential schools and 'Indian hospitals,' Indigenous peoples were subject to physical and sexual abuse, cruel experimentation, horrific maltreatment, and notably were used as test subjects for the tuberculosis vaccine in the 1930s.

While the last residential school closed in the 1990s, which is shocking in itself, mistreatment of Black and Indigenous communities continues.

Earlier this year, Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous mother of seven, died after her nurses not only failed to provide her with the medical care she needed, but also verbally abused her with racist stereotypes. Echaquan is just one of many Indigenous people to face racism within medical institutions.

There is also a significant lack of data regarding the health of Black Canadians, particularly Black women, who face poorer pregnancy outcomes, higher rates of chronic illness, and greater risk of dying from breast cancer compared to white women.

The government has named Indigenous communities and essential workers, many of whom are Black, as at-risk groups, set to receive vaccinations in the first few stages of its rollout plan. While these groups should undoubtedly receive vaccination priority, historic and ongoing racism makes it difficult for them to trust the government to act in their best interests.

If the Canadian government wants Black and Indigenous Canadians to put their trust in the undeserving health care system, it must stop focusing on downstream, bandage non-solutions like diversity training for racist employees and work upstream instead, dismantling the racist system from the ground up.

While a full overhaul of the health care system is idealistic in a country founded on racism, Canada can start by reducing barriers to medical education for Black and Indigenous Canadians.

Only Black and Indigenous healthcare workers can comprehend the dark realities their communities face. Being able to communicate with doctors, nurses, and health care professionals who share their experiences could help reduce the mistrust of the health care system among Black and Indigenous communities.

In the meantime, rather than addressing vaccine mistrust through culturally insensitive education programs, the government must take ownership of its dark past and listen to the concerns of its Black and Indigenous citizens, committing to anti-racism within the medical field once and for all.

Hannah is a third-year Psychology student and one of The Journal’s Copy Editors.

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