Sandra Wheen, a Camden resident, talks about her experiences of becoming a COVID-19 Health Champion, a programme run by Camden and Islington Public Health. She feels that the programme has empowered her and helped her in encouraging others to take up the COVID-19 vaccination.
I am 78, retired, and live on my own in a Camden Council flat. And I am proud to be a Camden COVID-19 Health Champion. It means that I have volunteered to encourage people to get vaccinated and follow government COVID-19 guidelines. My only qualifications are that I have time and motivation and can speak to an older age group where vaccination will save lives.
My motivation to become a Champion came from the fact that I had met a few people who are vaccine refusers and been scandalised by their attitude – to the extent that I had had to walk away from my conversations with them for fear of saying something I might regret. But then I attended an amazing online lecture about vaccine hesitancy and the antivax movement and learned that some communities had suffered medical abuse in the past so no wonder they didn’t trust the system.
My COVID-19 Health Champion Journey was to be full of roadblocks, detours and surprises.
My first hurdle was that I did not really fit the profile of the ideal Champion. The ideal Champion would be a professional who meets and talk with lots of people every day about their health. They will get many opportunities to ask, ‘Have you had your vaccination’ and then get into a conversation about it. I am retired and hardly see anyone! So, I asked Dragon Hall Community Centre in Covent Garden if I could champion vaccination by writing short factual snippets about the vaccine to go in their weekly e-mails to older people. They said, ‘Yes, but why not do a blog?’ I took up the challenge and wrote a light-hearted illustrated blog entitled ‘My Vaccination Journey’. You may read it here. I like to believe that a few people did get their vaccination after reading it.
Before I could become a Camden COVID-19 Health Champion (and write my blog for Dragon Hall), I was required to attend a two-hour online training session. The training was entitled ‘Good Conversations in Challenging Times’. The message of the training was that ‘good conversations can change minds’. And a good conversation about health is one where you LISTEN. You pick up on hints in what someone is saying to you and ask questions to find out exactly what they mean. If you take the trouble to do this and become their ally, they may be able to hear you when you offer information they did not know. If you pick a fight, you have lost before you have begun.
In practice, I have found that it will often take more than one conversation to even begin to change someone’s mind, and you may need to come back with reliable evidence for what you say – often a newspaper article. You can find this source material on the training website and also bring questions about the vaccine to the weekly Camden and Islington Champion online drop-in sessions where you can get to know members of the Camden Public Health Team and benefit from their warm encouragement to carry on in your role despite setbacks – because part of being a Champion is learning to get over disappointments, keep going and be happy to be just one link in a chain which may lead a person to talk to their GP.
This training has transformed my conversations with people who are vaccine-hesitant (and I hope it will spill over into my other conversations too). Now when I discover that someone is hesitant about taking the vaccine, I don’t get angry. I try and understand why. And it’s really interesting. Most of the few vaccine-hesitant people I have spoken to have been Christians from ethnic minorities. I have found mistrust of mainstream medicine and great faith in God’s protection. I have also found a lack of interest in mainstream news, for example, one I spoke to only listens to Premier Christian Radio, and one had never heard the expression ‘Long COVID’ and still thought COVID-19 was no worse than the flu. One, with underlying health issues, did, I am pleased to say, finally accept an invitation to talk to their doctor and has, I believe, now been vaccinated.
I would like to encourage anyone who is thinking of becoming a COVID-19 Health Champion to go to the Camden website and find out more about it COVID-19 Health Champions – Camden Council. You can sign up here – Sign up to be a COVID-19 Health Champion (survs.com). I don’t think it is as hard as I have made it sound because you take one step at a time in finding your way into the role. You will learn a lot about yourself, about the vaccine, about other people. You will develop new skills and more respect for others. It is quite an adventure! And an adventure for our times. I would be thrilled to see you at a future online Champions Drop-in saying you read my blog and signed up!