Vaccine engagement as a tool to address marginalization and exclusion

RN Amanda Ottley is a registered nurse and RNAO member working in the field of disability management. She is one of the founders of the Save Toronto Carnival community group and in this article, she introduces us to an inspiring grassroots effort. Thank you deeply for your work, Amanda!

I got tired of shouting at the TV during the official COVID-19 briefings every week. “It made my throat hurt.” “I was tired of attending virtual memorials”. “If I had to make one more call to find out how family members are managing in quarantine...”  This is what life looks like for Black and Caribbean people now. This explains how I ended up leading one of the community groups who have received funding under the City’s $5.5 million COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Teams Grants.  The purpose of the grant is to provide funding to address barriers to acceptance and increase uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in communities most negatively impacted by the virus.

In 2014, we called upon a handful of young professionals to form Save Toronto Carnival (STC).  STC is a grassroots group whose shared purpose was to make Toronto Carnival a safer space for the Black and Caribbean community.  STC quickly grew into a sounding board for the Caribbean community in Ontario. They used social media platforms to create a safe space online where Afro-Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean and Black communities could share their concerns.  STC has three pillars which guide our work: awareness, transparency, and engagement.  STC worked hard over the years to support a safer Carnival.  Each year more positive changes were enacted until STC had accomplished its mandate. 

Fast forward to February 2021, throat sore from screaming at the TV during yet another one of the province’s COVID briefings. The Black and Caribbean community were suffering disproportionately from COVID.  Yet another refusal from the province to protect BIPOC during this pandemic. Hot spots with no vaccination access. Sick days for essential workers that are not a priority. I reached out to the core members of STC. It was time to mobilize. We could make a difference. I felt this was something akin to “Avengers assemble!” It was really, just an email, but it had the weight and passion of a nurse getting ready to save the world.

STC’s core team consists of members of the African and Caribbean community. We have varied professional backgrounds from education, finance, human rights law, nursing, and social media.  We all share a single vision and purpose.  We must do everything we can to protect the Black, Caribbean and African community from the ravages of COVID.

How can it be that in Toronto Black people make up 8.99% of the population but make up 14.32% of the COVID-19 cases? South Asian or Indo-Caribbean people make up 12.7% of the population but make up 25.68% of the COVID-19 cases. Even through the vaccination process we are finding that people living in hotspots are getting vaccinated at lower rates than those who live in less affected areas. Our friends and family members are getting sick and dying, and STC had to answer the call.

That is when the hard work began. There were the late-night grant writing sessions. The efforts to connect with community groups who serve Black, Caribbean and African communities to explore collaboration. Four grant applications later, STC is excited to be included as one of the 150 community groups and agencies who have received funding under the City’s $5.5 million COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Teams Grants.

While the provincial government has been largely reactive it was initially a welcome change when they spoke of people over 18 years of age in these hotspots now being eligible to receive the vaccine. Now we’re hearing that they’re running out of vaccines and are cancelling these lifesaving appointments which only reinforces the marginalization that our community feels. This latest misstep has crushed the spirits of an already devastated community. We’re hearing from community members in tears because they finally had hope that they could get the vaccine and now that hope is gone. It’s interactions like this that fuel our passion to help our community members and keep them safe.

We have been hearing stories that whole families are contracting COVID-19 because of connections to essential work. It’s enough to make you want to hold your head and bawl. With a government that refuses to implement paid sick leave to protect workers, we will do whatever we can to help those that seem like afterthoughts during this pandemic. Our guide in approaching this work, owes much to the work of Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa who is an expert in creating solutions to promote health equity in national and global health. He speaks about the importance of “creating spaces and opportunities for those who live in the community to have their voices heard in naming the problem and offering solutions to the problems they face”.

So, to our Black, Caribbean and African family, do not lose hope. We will rise. We will work with our allies like the RNAO and the City of Toronto to create those spaces.

Leading the charge are: Amanda Ottley, RN with a Master of Nursing from University of Toronto. Karli Roopchan, Vice-Chair of the Diversity and Community Engagement Committee for the Town of Ajax. Karli is also a licensed paralegal with the Law Society of Ontario where she has worked primarily in the field of Ontario Human Rights law. Elise Roopchan, second generation Canadian of both Afro and Indo-Caribbean descent. Elise is a third year New Media student studying social media and emerging technology in the RTA program at Ryerson University. Shelly Richardson, IT Consultant living and working in the heart of downtown Toronto.  Shelly is of Afro-Trinidadian descent and has her degree in Information Technology and Statistics from York University.

You can reach STC at