While we’ve all been affected by Covid-19 in some way, the coronavirus crisis has put the spotlight, above all, on some of the most vulnerable communities around the world, including here in Scotland.
Older people, those with underlying health conditions, and people who are living in hardship and without close support have all been massively impacted by the social, economic and health impacts of the pandemic.
Among those who have faced the greatest challenges in the last year are refugees and people who have come to the UK to seek asylum as they have had to navigate this difficult period in a new country, often without access to family and friends, and in conditions that are inadequate.
We all know how testing it’s been to get through this period of crisis but imagine how tough it would be if you were having to negotiate these challenges in a different language, not always knowing who to trust or believe and not always knowing what help was available.
Thankfully, at the British Red Cross, our international reputation means that people coming to Scotland in search of sanctuary, and those escaping trafficking or domestic abuse, do already trust us and often seek our support. This has been crucial for them – and for public health – and was particularly important when it came to the Covid-19 vaccination rollout.
Our organisation has supported local health boards and NHS Scotland at vaccination centres across the country since the rollout began in December, creating supportive environments where recipients have access to the information and aftercare they need.
Our refugee support services work with up to 4,000 people each year, with the majority of people they support residing in Glasgow, so we had already built many relationships that would be crucial in helping to make sure people knew how to get a jab, where to get one and were equipped with the information they needed to be confident enough to be vaccinated in the first place.
People from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities have been shown to be more likely to suffer from serious Covid-19 infection than the wider population and vulnerable communities, including those seeking asylum, can be at high risk of vaccine inequality.
To counter this, the Red Cross offered to support Mears – the asylum accommodation provider in Scotland – with on-the-ground practical and psychosocial support as they administered vaccines among their hotel residents in Glasgow.
The first vaccination rollout for asylum seeker hotel and initial accommodation residents in Glasgow took place across three days at the end of April and there was a positive atmosphere across the three hotels as people were swiftly given AstraZeneca vaccines in socially distanced conference rooms. A small number of clients took up the opportunity to sit with a Red Cross volunteer after receiving their vaccine because they were nervous and wanted reassurance.
Bilingual British Red Cross staff have been crucial in this regard, helping people to understand, in their own language, important NHS Scotland information about the vaccine and what to expect when and after receiving it.
We have tried to be factual and supportive while remaining neutral and taking into account religious and cultural concerns, such as the observance of Ramadan and some of the disinformation that has been targeted towards people in minority communities.
The overall uptake for the vaccine among the people we were supporting in this way was 39%, though the programme excluded those under the age of 30 and those who had received a jab from a GP or other health provider, and we believe the reasons people gave for not taking up the jab will help inform how we ensure people coming to the UK to seek sanctuary access healthcare in the future.
The main reasons given were:
- Not wanting to break Ramadan fast: This is something that could be taken into consideration around any future vaccination rollout scheduled for religious festivals.
- Preferring to get the Pfizer rather than AZ vaccine: Sadly, the media coverage around AZ risks and blood clots seemed to have an impact on people’s comfort level with taking that particular vaccine.
- Peer persuasion: Some people changed their mind on the day after hearing somebody else change theirs.
- Being under 30: Some clients came to the vaccination areas themselves asking to receive it but were told they were too young.
- Previous engagements: a couple of clients said they had plans for the weekend and didn’t want to be out-of-action with the side effects.
- Non-clinical environment: one client said he thought it was inappropriate that the vaccine was being administered outside of a hospital.
In addition, some people advised that they didn’t want to take a vaccine just yet, preferring to wait and see what happens to those who did receive one. They also wanted to wait and see if Pfizer would be made available to them in the near future.
So, from our experience, there have been reasons to be encouraged by this vaccination effort but also important lessons to be learned.
For example, the British Red Cross has long had concerns about the housing of people seeking asylum in hotels. Our recent report, Far from a Home, showed how the use of hotels to house people in these circumstances, including families with small children, leaves people isolated and unable to access the support they need for months and even years.
A significant part of our concerns are the lack of health care pathways and support for people inside those hotels, so the vaccine rollout is a positive step forward in Glasgow when it comes to addressing this issue.
But more needs to be done, for the benefit of those who have come to this country because it’s a place where they can be safe, healthy and happy, and for the wider public good because Covid-19 has shown us that our collective health is far more intimately connected than any of us had properly understood before now.
For more further information about British Red Cross vaccination support for refugee communities in Scotland please contact me at EmmaMcCarthy@redcross.org.uk or call the Red Cross coronavirus support line on 0808 196 3651.