Perhaps the most outrageous anti Covid-19 vaccine theory I have heard, is that those who administer the jab, deliberately leave the entire needle, buried deep inside the arm of the vaccinated person. For what intent or purpose - I have no idea.

 But it is certainly a rumour that has unsettled elderly members from some BAME communities. And it should unsettle the wider population too. Not because the rumour is true; but rather these false narratives are manifesting their way into legitimate debates about vaccine safety. 

Rumours such as these are not just circulating amongst young, vaccine-hesitant people, via WhatsApp messages. In some cases, they are unintentionally peddled by older members of BAME groups, who happen to be most at risk of dying from the virus due to age and race. 

According to parliament’s rapid response report, Impact of Covid-19 on different ethnic minority groups, people from BAME communities are “three times more likely to contract Covid-19” and “five times more likely” to suffer a “serious outcome,” like death. Likewise, the same group of people are more likely to have comorbidities like diabetes and hypertension, putting them at increased risk of mortality from the virus. 

Yet in spite of these statistics, many BAME people are still shunning the vaccine, which could help reduce rates of infection and escalating death toll. According to a poll by the Royal Society for Public Health, 57% of respondents from minority ethnic backgrounds said they would take up the vaccine, compared to 79% of the white population. 

South Asian people were shown to be the most hesitant with only 55% suggesting they would accept the vaccine. However, the UK Household Longitudinal Study puts the highest rate of hesitancy amongst black groups at 72%, followed by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.

 But why? Why refuse to be part of the government’s ambitious vaccination programme to inoculate the adult population of Britain, which has so far, successfully jabbed over 21.5 million people, at a rate of 2 million a week?  Why, when the efficacy rates of the approved vaccines are higher than those for flu, that the coronavirus vaccines, are viewed with suspicion? 

Conspiracies are just one example of how people’s vulnerabilities can be exploited through fear; from rumour and misinformation. When suspicion is peddled from within a community, by those whom you know and trust, somehow a divorced logic can still find a place to fester. Picture this, you may speak little English; you may have inadequate knowledge of current affairs or rely on others to explain scientific discourse. 

It is easy to see how misinformation can take root. 

But the BAME community is far from homogeneous and it is naïve to assume that the same concerns are making everyone feel nervous in an identical way. The government white paper on ‘Factors influencing vaccine uptake in minority communities’ cites “distrust” as being one reason preventing some people from taking up the jab, alongside “low confidence in the vaccine.” 

Understandably, speed of production is a concern across all communities not just minority ones, because vaccines can take years to produce. 

Feeling apprehension about their safety is natural. However, not being able to understand how the vaccine process has met safety standards because the information is either not available, or not communicated in layman terms, shows that the government has a lot to do to reach out to people at all levels of society; not just the scientifically literate.

But “distrust” is something more sinister; bore out of years of social and health inequalities. Amongst some ethnic minority groups, there is suspicion that BAME people are being experimented on; a fear which stems from historically unethical medical practices, such as the Tuskegee trials in America during the 1930s. Black men were duped into taking part in clinical trials to monitor the impact of untreated Syphilis. The outcome was devastating, leading to severe health problems and eventually death. 

Fears that black people could be targets of unethical experimentation, were triggered when two French Doctors suggested that trials of coronavirus vaccines should be conducted in “Africa.” How then, can we be surprised when such blatant racial narratives prove counter-productive to the vaccination effort? Can you blame black people for perceiving medical authorities as duplicitous in perpetuating racism?

It must be said, vaccine hesitancy is experienced differently by different minority groups; often transcending age and gender. Black people have historically been less likely to accept any kind of vaccination, even before the pandemic struck. However, for some Muslim communities, (Bangladeshis and Pakistanis) religious concerns such as vaccines meeting halal certification, is a major factor in some people’s decision to turn it down. 

Lack of authoritative or religious endorsements have also played a part in people’s decisions. Sometimes, the hardest to reach in these communities are those who have newly settled in the UK or who speak limited English, preventing them from being able to understand the benefits of vaccination. For others, hesitancy is simply the result of social and economic hardships and practical dilemmas. 

With significant BAME people working in low paid jobs, with unsociable working hours, accessing or travelling to appointments can feature as a hinderance. Perhaps the saddest of all though, are those who have lost faith in the healthcare system due to previous negative experiences, based on perceived racial biases; preferring instead to turn their backs on the country’s vaccination programme.

The government’s recommendations, to improve vaccine uptake is outlined in its white paper and includes; “multilingual, non-stigmatising communications”, vaccine “endorsement from trusted sources” and “community engagement”. 

On the ground, some of these practices are already being implemented. The Association of Muslim Doctors has published a fact busting document, ‘Covid-19-Vaccination-The Facts’, addressing concerns relating to the ethical nature of the vaccines, their ingredients and suitability for religious dietary requirements, as well as efficacy and safety. It communicates simple facts to people, dispelling myths which Muslims may have about the vaccines. 

More importantly, it unofficially assumes both an authority from a medical point of view as well as a religious stand point. 

Across the country too, Mosques and Churches have opened their doors to temporarily become vaccine hubs for the clinically vulnerable within their communities, to make access easier. In Sheffield, the Jamia Ghausia Centre on Firth Park Road, is one of the mosques taking part to increase turnout and encourage the vulnerable to get their jabs in a familiar and unintimidating setting. And it’s not just the faithful who are trying to do their bit to get behind the public health message. 

BBC Asian network has been publishing a number of videos and programmes in Asian languages, whilst working with minority ethnic doctors to produce content, that will reach those unlikely to understand the government’s message in English. But only time will tell if this will be enough to protect Britain’s BAME communities.

Husna Begum is a Curriculum Content Writer, Tutor and a Political Correspondent for Immigration News, which is a media platform raising awareness of social and political issues relating to migrant communities.