I lost two family members to Covid. Now I’m on a mission to build vaccine confidence in Scarborough

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I lost two family members to Covid. Now I’m on a mission to build vaccine confidence in Scarborough

Kaitlyn Gonsalves, a U of T researcher, has spent the past several months defending her master’s thesis on infectious diseases and translational research in medicine. At the same time, she’s been a one-woman information machine, helping family and friends in her community understand the science behind Covid and vaccines. Now she’s a part of Vaccine Hunters Canada, working on delivering vaccine information virtually. Here’s how it all went down.

—As told to Furqan Mohamed

“I’ve always known that I wanted to be in medicine. Right now, I’m in research, but one day I’d like to pursue my MD. At the core, I wanted to give people who look like me the health care they have historically been denied. I am Goan-Kenyan, born and raised in Scarborough. In my neighbourhood, during the pandemic, I’ve met with people who are experiencing uncertainty or confusion about Covid-19 or vaccines—people from my immediate South Asian circle, but also Black families, Asian families and white families. It started when friends and family started reaching out to me over social media, asking questions for themselves and their families. Then people started approaching me on the street, or at curbside pickups. It’s a tight-knit community, and word quickly spread that I’m the one to get in touch with if people have questions. Soon I was spending hours on the day talking to people, and setting up regular socially distanced chat sessions. These are people who are racialized, who are trying to make enough money to feed their kids and provide for their families, who might have no science background. As much as I am a scientist, I’m also a part of this marginalized community.

“In February of this year, I lost a woman who had been like a grandmother to me. She lived in the U.K., and she died of Covid. Our family doesn’t know where she contracted it; the general theory is that she picked it up when receiving treatment for another health issue. We were always close, and I even lived with her and her husband for a few months in 2016 after I completed my undergraduate degree. We had lunch and dinner together every day. She died just weeks after being exposed. Her death shattered me. A few weeks later, my cousin contracted Covid. She was 44 and lived in Mississauga. She had a chronic health condition and should have been eligible for the vaccine, but she didn’t get it in time. She ended up in the ICU, but eventually she had to be transferred to another hospital in Hamilton because there wasn’t any room in Mississauga. She died two weeks ago. I’ve been helping plan the funeral. Meanwhile, my cousin’s mother, my aunt, has Covid as well. I haven’t even had time to grieve. We don’t get breaks with trauma.

“Since all this happened, I’d been thinking about how to expand my efforts building vaccine confidence. I still wanted to do the work in my immediate community—meeting people on the sidewalk, 10 metres apart, and speaking with elders over the phone—but I also wanted to help more people who might need help breaking down what’s going on. A couple of days before my cousin died, I reached out to Vaccine Hunters. Now I’ve joined them as a volunteer health care expert and community moderator on their health care team. We have over 20,000 people on Discord and over 185,000 followers on Twitter. It is a beautiful extension of community care. We don’t give medical advice, but we’ll help people figure out their eligibility, how they can find available appointments, where they can book and more. I think I’ve memorized every eligibility criteria of every hospital and clinic in the Greater Toronto Area.

“There are about 10 of us on the health care team, and we stay up to date on all the new research, NACI recommendations and public health guidelines. Sometimes people are eligible but the don’t know how to find appointments. I’m spending four or five hours a day on the phone or on Discord, helping people book their vaccine. And it’s not just seniors: I’m talking to people in their 20s, older millennials, young people waiting on their 18th birthday, pregnant people, non-binary and transgender people, essential workers, people who don’t have a family doctor. We get thousands of messages and try to respond to each one. It’s worth it if it means more people are getting vaccinated and protecting themselves and their families.

“When I’m not working with Vaccine Hunters, I’m spreading information to my community in Scarborough. When you are an immigrant elder, whether Italian, African, Caribbean or Indian, whether in your 60s or 70s or older, you may not understand what’s going on because no one has put in the time to sit down and explain it. Many racialized people have had difficult experiences with the health care system and don’t want to put their lives in its hands. Even though I communicate in English, I’ve often come across a language barrier, so I direct them to UHN’s Friendly Neighbourhood Hotline, which offers services in 39 languages.

“I spend time with people, making sure they fully understand the symptoms of Covid-19, the risk factors, when to go to the hospital, and how to protect themselves in their daily lives. I spoke to an older uncle, explaining that he should wear a mask even at home when other people are there. Then he asked more questions. ‘So where was this vaccine made? Do you think it’s safe?’ It’s clear that the public health guidelines are not being communicated to people like him, and it’s up to me to fill in those gaps. People from my church come up to me at the grocery store to speak with me about their concerns. Sometimes it takes me a second to take a deep breath and say, “Okay, how can I help you?’ Then I answer all of their questions to the best of my ability.

“Recently, while walking my dog, I ran into a woman in her 60s who lives in my neighbourhood. I’ve known her all my life, and I went to elementary school with her kids. She mentioned that she had booked her vaccine but didn’t know if she was going to go. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. We talked about how scared she was of the variants, and how she just didn’t understand what’s happening. We spent about an hour outside, in the rain, 10 feet apart. Thankfully, I had an umbrella. She said, ‘Do you think it’s safe, Kaitlyn?’ Maybe I was the only person she mentioned that to, or maybe I was the only person who gave her the time to air her thoughts. I always start conversations with, ‘I understand that you’re feeling scared. I’m scared too. How can I help answer your question?’ After an hour in the rain, she looked at me and cried. She said, “Thank you for listening. I just needed someone to listen to me. And I just wanted to know that I was doing the right thing.” She told me she would go to her AstraZeneca vaccine appointment and that she was excited for it. I let her know that if she had any questions she should talk to her doctor, and that she could come to knock on my door anytime. I’m planning to follow up with her.

“I’ve taken all these little steps so eventually they’re comfortable being vaccinated. I want them to consent to get the first available vaccine that they are eligible for. If they have a good experience understanding the science, they will share that with their family, spreading vaccine confidence even further. I can only do my best to give people up-to-date evidence and clinical knowledge, to help them make the best decision for themselves. I don’t pressure people to get vaccinated, or tell them they have to do it, but I try to help them understand how dire things are in Ontario. There are people behind these numbers. They work at warehouses, manufacturing plants, in Amazon warehouses in Peel, Brampton, and Toronto. They may live in multi-generational housing with their families, or in their cars, or encampments. They’re all of us.

“Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have always known that there are inequities in the system. We live them, we breathe them, we feel them. We don’t need more proof. Many essential workers are racialized people who’ve been left completely on their own to figure out a confusing system. Who has time to figure that out as an essential worker? Getting a vaccine might mean you’d have to take a day off work—then you lose pay. Our system has created vaccine inequity and forced people to make impossible decisions every day. Every single vaccine that I’ve helped to book for my family and community has been difficult.

“I’ve spoken to people who are from the Indian community, like me and my family. They’re struggling in this country and worrying about family members back home. Our diaspora is everywhere and nowhere, at the same time. Physically we are in Canada, Britain, Kenya, India, but mentally and spiritually we are in so many other places, surviving multiple pandemics. We worry so much about keeping our families alive, because we know that the systems in place are failing to do so. But just because the system doesn’t care about us doesn’t mean we have to stop caring about each other. What I learned about the loss of my cousin and grandmother is that I have to do this work because no one else will. I’ve been putting my anger toward removing barriers myself. It is an honour and a joy to do this work. I will meet people where they are, and I will hold their hand, and I will say, ‘I know you’re scared, and I am too. We can walk through this together.’”