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Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

SocietyFebruary 4, 2022

Why is the Asian community behind on boosters?

Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

Asian New Zealanders were quick to take up the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19 last year, but the latest data shows they’re lagging behind all other ethnicities on boosters. What happened? Naomii Seah investigates.

“Unless you’re health literate, it’s really hard to know what’s true and what isn’t true.”

Andrew Xiao, a student at the University of Otago, is concerned about the misinformation spreading in his family and the wider Chinese community in Taranaki, which he believes is contributing to low rates of booster uptake among Asian people. 

Government data shows that Asian booster rates are lagging behind other major ethnic groups, despite a Ministry of Health spokesperson’s statement that “the ministry is working on initiatives across a range of government departments, DHBs, agencies and NGOs on some targeted approaches” to ensure “the vaccine rollout [is] equitable across Aotearoa’s ethnic communities”. 

As of February 3, only 53.2% of the eligible Asian population nationwide had received their booster shot. In comparison, 77.4% of the eligible Pākehā population, 66% of the eligible Māori population, and 54.8% of the eligible Pasifika population had had their boosters. 

The below chart shows booster doses as proportion of eligible population by ethnicity and DHB; you can change the DHB in the drop-down menu

Currently, the Covid-19 website is available in 37 languages, which can be accessed through a “languages” button on the top right of the page. Available languages include Chinese, both traditional and simplified, Japanese, Hindi, Korean, Malay, Punjabi, Thai and Vietnamese, among others. But Xiao believes more needs to be done to establish effective lines of communication to the already disenfranchised Asian communities

Although uptake of the vaccine was generally high among Asian New Zealanders in 2021, there were concerns about low vaccination rates among elderly Chinese, language barriers to vaccination, and the spread of misinformation in the Asian community. Two years into the pandemic, and these concerns seem to be reflected in the community’s lagging booster rates. 

Xiao, who has extended family who work near Wuhan, says he believes the initial vaccine response from his family was good because they had seen the effects of the pandemic overseas. However, as time went on, Xiao believes misinformation had more of a chance to spread, which led to his mum becoming vaccine adverse. He says she finally received her second dose “only to pacify me”. 

Xiao points to a lack of government communication directed at Asian communities. He notes that official Covid advertising isn’t representative of the Asian community, and he believes this contributes to the proliferation of misinformation. 

“Unless you have an official source of information you can go to easily without a dictionary or a translator… it’ll go over your head.” 

The below chart shows the number of people by ethnicity and DHB who have received their booster against the number eligible; change the DHB in the drop-down menu

Indira Fernando agrees; she’s seen similar misinformation circulating in the South Asian community. For the Sri Lankan community specifically, Fernando notes that vaccine hesitancy seems to stem from a lack of reliable information. 

“Someone always has a story about Aunty so-and-so’s cousin’s dog’s best friend’s neighbour who had the vaccine and is dying… they’re all really afraid of getting sick, of dying from the vaccine.” 

Fernando notes there are many types of misinformation, and those circulating in her community tend to focus on the narrative that the vaccine isn’t the only solution to the pandemic. Her aunty recently forwarded her a video that claimed those who caught Covid should go on the keto diet. 

“Some people are worried they’ll get Covid through the vaccine,” continues Xiao, “which isn’t possible, but if you’re not health literate, that seems plausible.” 

In the absence of effective communication from official sources, Xiao and Fernando have seen their communities turning to messaging apps such as WeChat and WhatsApp, obtaining their knowledge from friends and family who may not always have the most reliable information. 

Xiao’s mother is part of a “giant” WeChat group of Chinese people in Taranaki, where misinformation is rife. 

“All the time, there’s someone posting another video of some guy [going] off about how there’s not enough research… it’s in Mandarin as well. There’s not much pro-vaccine stuff targeting Asian people.” 

Andrew Xiao and Indira Fernando (Photo: Supplied)

A senior member of the Malaysian-Chinese community in East Auckland, Linda Tan says she was also affected by misinformation circulating on messaging apps. She said she had to “figure out” what to believe, as she was receiving chain forwards from WhatsApp that made various claims about the vaccine, including that it “altered” your DNA. Similar to Xiao’s story, Tan was vaccinated at the persuasion of her sons. 

“Lots of Chinese people, specifically, don’t watch English language TV,” notes Xiao. “The official Covid alerts are all in English.” 

Both Xiao and Fernando say a level of complacency has crept into the Asian community, as Covid rates remain comparatively low in New Zealand. They’d both like to see more campaigns targeted towards Asian communities. 

Fernando says that could be as simple as using people of Asian descent in campaigns, or providing Asian language resources. 

Sunil Kaushal, president of the Waitākere Indian Association, also points to more practical reasons for the lag in booster numbers in the Asian community. 

“People have returned to work,” says Kaushal. “Finding the time [to get vaccinated] during lockdown was easy.” 

Kaushal says he’s confident booster uptake in the Asian community will rise eventually, citing the high vaccination rates in the Indian community for the first two jabs. But in the Indian community, Kaushal believes the current numbers may reflect a wider problem with workers’ rights and employment relations, especially in low-wage jobs. “There’s a fear,” he notes. “You don’t want to lose a job in this day and age.” And for those working on an hourly wage, the time taken off work to get a booster and recuperate is money they might not be able to afford to lose. 

That’s despite the fact that employees are entitled to paid leave to get a Covid vaccine, including a booster. Kaushal notes that his own sons, who work in hospitality, are being told they won’t receive pay for time off work to get their boosters. This may stem from a lack of understanding from Asian workers about their rights during the pandemic, or overt power disparities in workplaces. 

There’s no one answer to why Asian booster rates remain behind others in Aotearoa, but Kaushal says “we’ve got to be practical”. 

“The question begs: in a community that had the highest vaccination rate, why is the rate of boosters low?”

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