COVID-19 initiative provides culturally specific approach to combat the virus in Black and African Nova Scotian Communities

Left to right: Sharon Davis-Murdoch, Archy Beals, Veronica Marsman

In the early stages of the pandemic, it became clear that some communities were at higher risk than others and would be disproportionately affected by the virus.

Even before the province declared a state of emergency, leaders in the Black and African Nova Scotian community understood that protecting and educating their community about the virus would also involve working against systemic racism and inequities within the health system.

In March 2020, the Health Association of African Canadians (HAAC) held a Town Hall to address online misinformation about COVID-19 and alert communities about the disproportionate impact it was likely to have on People of African Descent. “At that point, the Government of Nova Scotia had not declared a state of emergency, but we were already concerned about the misinformation circulating. We knew we needed to inform community members and include them in conversations,” explained Sharon Davis-Murdoch.

Sharon Davis-Murdoch

At the same time, the Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW) took action as well and established a province-wide toll-free number that responded to questions, provided support and services, and made referrals based on the needs of individuals and organizations in their communities.

Veronica Marsman and Sharon Davis-Murdoch are the Co-Managers of the ABSW & HAAC COVID-19 Response & Impact Team. This initiative was formed to create awareness to combat the pandemic within African Nova Scotian and Black Communities. With collaboration and partnership at the forefront, the Impact Team sought out partners that could help provide province wide connections to services to keep Communities informed and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to address local needs.

“The toll-free line was initially set up to respond to questions, but also responded to needs when people were isolating,” said Marsman, who is also the Past President of ABSW.

Veronica Marsman

“We came up with many different ways to connect and support community members. For example, helping seniors get to the grocery store or to the pharmacy, and dropping off food boxes to community members,” said Marsman. “It was an enormous relief for people across the province.”

Marsman and Davis-Murdoch said it was non-negotiable that the approach to addressing COVID-19 be culturally specific, and they ensured that this founding principal was in place from the beginning.

“There are cultural and social realities that make Black people more susceptible to risk, including the reality of anti-Black racism, the inequities arising from the structural determinants of health, multi-generational living as well as the cultural warmth of our interactions” stated Davis-Murdoch.

Dr. David Haase is a retired infectious disease physician. He is Past President of HAAC and a key leader in the organization.

“There are clear disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on our communities,” said Dr. Haase. “Although we were not collecting data in Canada to show objective numbers, we had anecdotal reports within Canada. In addition, data from the United States clearly showed that there was more infection and deaths occurring among Black Communities.”

Dr. Haase explained that this effect had several contributing factors. The health impacts of a history of enslavement and systemic racism contributes to disproportionate and increased incidences of chronic health conditions that contribute to more severe outcomes from COVID-19.

The group has hosted several town halls throughout the pandemic, covering a variety of topics, including vaccination for children, staying safe and healthy, new COVID-19 variants, getting tested, and information about proof of vaccination status.

When vaccines became available, the group knew that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not be effective for Black and African Nova Scotian Communities. A culturally specific approach was needed, which in this case meant sharing information that is specifically relevant to people of African ancestry.

In partnership with Public Health, the initiative used the CanImmunize booking system and welcomed community members to call the HAAC/ABSW toll-free line to book vaccination appointments.

The work of the initiative expanded to other Black and African Nova Scotian Communities across the province, and they set up COVID-19 Coordinators in other communities across the province.

“These Coordinators were individuals that we knew in various capacities in a number of our Black and African Nova Scotian communities. They became the legs and eyes on the ground,” says Marsman. “They know their communities best, so when we needed resources distributed, we were able to get them in the hands of a trusted community member.”

The COVID-19 Coordinators identified the spaces that were most accessible to community members to host vaccine and testing clinics.

Archy Beals

Archy Beals is a COVID-19 Coordinator for the community of North Preston.

As a COVID-19 Coordinator, Beals was the connection between the community and the ABSW & HAAC COVID-19 Response & Impact Team. He shared information and educational resources with community members and brought community concerns to the ABSW & HAAC COVID-19 Response & Impact Team. He also co-chaired the Preston Township Emergency Impact and Response Team, which was a committee formed by the nonprofit organization Arts, Community, Culture, Economics (ACCE) to tackle COVID-19 from a township perspective.

“There were a lot of questions around testing and vaccinations,” explained Beals. “Many people also expressed fear of getting tested. We made the information available to the community to let them know that although it’s an invasive test, it’s a necessary one.”

Beals says there was a lot of work done to step in to alleviate fear, not only around testing, but also how to practice Public Health measures to protect community members from the virus.

To further alleviate fear, a partnership was initiated with the North End Community Health Centre to offer testing and vaccines within the community through a mobile clinic van.

“The nurses on the mobile clinic van were from the community so people knew them, which made people more comfortable to get tested and get the vaccine,” said Beals.

In addition to his work as a COVID-19 Coordinator, Beals worked at the Nova Scotia Community College as Student Services Advisor, African Canadian Supports. After almost three decades in this position, he retired at the end of July. He is now working as an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Consultant for the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission.

“If you are honest and open with people, especially around sensitive topics, people are willing to put their trust in you,” noted Beals.

Most importantly, the vaccine and testing clinics were created with a focus on culturally specific needs.

“We need to have cultural competence in the process, so people are engaged,” said Davis-Murdoch. “When you walked into one of those clinics, you felt welcomed and saw people who looked like you from your own Communities. At these clinics, you witnessed the strength and professionalism, and expertise of Black people in that setting.”

Marsman explains the clinics were set up through an Africentric engagement process.

“There was a sense of ‘us’ during the whole process. When people left, they felt informed, cared for and stronger because they now had protection against the virus,” said Marsman.

The tireless work of the ABSW & HAAC COVID-19 Response & Impact Team is not finished. They are still working to encourage members of the community to get vaccinated and to take precautions against the pandemic. With the recent changes to Public Health measures, this means a different approach than earlier in the pandemic.

Supported by the Public Health Mobile Unit, the initiative is offering pop-up clinics in different communities. They are also exploring the possibility of providing vaccines at different community events. 

The initiative is also advocating for system-wide policy changes and increases in representation.

“We need representation at the highest level of the health care system, not just at the clinical level,” explained Davis-Murdoch. “We also need to ensure that People of African descent are involved in system decision making and policy development.  As the members of HAAC always say, ‘nothing about us, without us!’”