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Land Acknowledgment ​The work of CASSA takes place on traditional Indigenous territories of the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. This territory is part of the Dish with One Spoon Treaty, an agreement between the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, Tsi Tkaron:to, the traditional Mohawk name of this area called Toronto which means “trees in the water,” and its surrounding areas are still home to Indigenous people and we are grateful to have the opportunity to meet, work, and play on this territory as settlers. We wish to express gratitude to Mother Earth and for the resources we are using, and honour all the First Nation, Métis and Inuit people who have been living on the land since time immemorial.

Editor Wardah Malik Art Director and Designer Tooba Syed Contributors Nita Goswami ​ Wardah Malik Zeahaa Rahman Mission of CASSA CASSA is an umbrella organization that supports and advocates on behalf of existing as well as emerging South Asian agencies, groups, and communities in order to address their diverse and dynamic needs. CASSA’s goal is to empower the South Asian Community. CASSA is committed to the elimination of all forms of discrimination from Canadian society. Website: Twitter: @CASSAOnline Instagram: @cassaonline Facebook:


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a note from South Asian Vaccine Engagement Collaborative What does a successful vaccine engagement campaign look like? This question has defined the work of the South Asian Vaccine Engagement Collaborative (SAVEC) to ensure concerns are addressed. Since its inception in early 2021, SAVEC has continuously checked-in with its community members in order to make vaccine education responsive, accessible, and inclusive. SAVEC remains committed to providing culturally competent and community relevant resources that uplift South Asian voices.

This ZINE is an example of that commitment. Through its sections, the reader will learn about the confusion, fear, and hope that South Asians experienced during this pandemic. This is an opportunity for empathy. To learn about the different lives that were lived. And to question why racialized communities were hardest hit. This ZINE cannot provide all answers but it can encourage conversation and hope for an equitable society.

Wardah Malik

Project Manager, (CASSA)​ Council of Agencies Serving South Asians

An interview with Nita Goswami


Nita Goswami is the Project Coordinator and Lead Vaccine Ambassador at Settlement Assistance and Family Support Services. In this photo Nita is sewing masks for the community.

I felt powerless in that moment and burst into tears. It is easy to believe that people don’t get vaccinated because of misinformation. What made you join vaccine engagement efforts? Was there a specific feeling during this pandemic that motivated you to start outreach work? I joined vaccine engagement work because there was a need for it, especially in my neighborhood. I live in a densely populated area with visitors, international students, and low income families - many of these people work multiple jobs and struggled financially before the pandemic. When COVID hit, I was already supporting 40 parent families, seniors, youth, women, and international students. I built strong relationships within my community and recognized the need for wellconnected individuals to spread word about vaccine roll-out. It was clear early on that awareness about our neighborhood was the only way forward. In South Scarborough, people were lining up at 5:00am for their first dose but the clinic only had 500 doses available for the day. I started posting live updates and photos on Twitter to bring more doses to the community. We did manage to get more doses but new challenges came our way afterwards. Although this year has been difficult on many levels, I know that my work (and the work of my peers) has left an impact on how Toronto has managed the pandemic. There was a popular misconception that this pandemic was a “great equalizer.” Now we know that this pandemic has been significantly harder for certain groups (low income, racialized communities). Why do you think many believed in this misconception earlier on? When I read or hear this I think about the people who live in single laundry, single washroom, single bedroom units across Toronto. These people are low to moderate income families who cannot afford the space to live or to isolate if they get COVID. These people also work multiple jobs to survive, they educate their children virtually, they manage everything without stopping and looking back to see what they have lost. I, personally, started taking my bike to avoid crowded TTC trains because I am afraid of getting sick and I cannot afford a car. I taught my 10 year old child to take care of my 7 year old so I could do groceries and not expose

them to crowded public areas. I don’t know why people believed this misconception. It is everywhere even with information sharing. To this day, we struggle with seniors and newcomers accessing information online. It is convenient to believe that we all experienced illness, like COVID, the same way but it is not true. What has been the most impactful or memorable interaction you have experienced during outreach work? This can be either a positive or negative experience. As part of my work as a vaccine engagement ambassador, I organized a clinic at a temple on Diwali where I met many of my neighbors. I remember an older lady sitting in the corner of the temple with two kids and well-worn clothes. I approached her and asked if she was vaccinated. She responded that her hesitancy to get vaccinated was rooted in her fear. She informed me that she lost her husband two months ago and she was worried who would take care of her children if she got a severe reaction to the vaccine. I felt powerless in that moment and burst into tears. It is easy to believe that people don’t get vaccinated because of misinformation. This interaction showed me that hesitancy is also because of barriers and hardship that people cannot overcome easily. After our conversation, I asked ambassadors and organizations to provide her meals and clothes. The women did eventually get vaccinated with a clinic I organized. Why do you think culturally-tailored messaging, especially for South Asians, is important? What difference has that approach caused in increased vaccine confidence? It is important because it creates the initial trust required for us to approach and help people. We just connect on a different level when there is a common language or cultural experience. I think an example would explain this best; mid last year, I helped an elderly couple get vaccinated at Centennial College. The woman had mobility issues due to surgeries and the couple could not afford a cab ride. I searched for someone to support them

or to get free transportation. The process was difficult to do alone because neither the woman nor the man understood the questions they were asked at the clinic. There was a sense of confusion on what exactly to do and how to provide vaccination receipts. I comforted them by speaking to them in their language. I am fluent in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and to some extent Bengali - this has made a huge difference to my vaccine engagement work. Residents feel free to connect with me and express their issues in a way that is most convenient for them. This informs my work and I search for solutions based on these conversations. So far, I have walked residents to clinics, assisted them with questionnaires, translated government resources and other materials relevant to COVID vaccinations.

choices accordingly. The current crime rate in youth and separation cases in families is the picture of the pain. There is so much that we are struggling with right now and can’t feel it will be normal again. But if I were to envision recovery it would be through art therapy and gathering events. I know it would help me feel complete during this heavy time.

Engagement and advocacy work for the COVID-19 vaccines had been a unique challenge. In what ways do you think the messaging on the pandemic and vaccine could have been better managed? Seeing them in person, providing them their basic needs like free meals, groceries, transportation and other much needed resources before jabbing them. Feeling their pain as if it is yours and you have been through that and it was difficult. Supporting grassroot community leaders for their never-ending work for the community before they feel burned out. We are in our third year into this pandemic, how do you approach outreach work especially in the sixth wave and with heightened pandemic fatigue? My only goal is to support the community to make it happy, healthy and thriving. I do so by helping others with what they need but not with what you have. There is a lot of self-reflection involved and the work is emotionally demanding. I work at a school and have noticed that children need special attention when it comes to mental health. Through my training, I know to look beyond the obvious signs to see what is really troubling children. Many are burnt out and exhausted from vaccine talk so my aim is to uplift them by engaging them in activities and decent work opportunities. I am motivated to do this because I know it makes a difference in my community. How do envision recovery from this pandemic? What needs to be addressed/healed before we can say we are back to normal? Will there be a normal after a pandemic such as this? A major issue that I think hasn’t been addressed is affordability. There is no recovery without questioning why many people cannot afford to isolate or take sick leave. Right now what we are doing is patching up the holes, the actual recovery might take decades. It is hard to say that our community might ever be whole again. We have lost many loved ones that we could not grieve for properly due to meeting restrictions. People have learned to ignore and live with the pain and make

Top right: Mobile vaccine clinic held in residential neighborhood Bottom left: Sorting and distribution of food items for Scarborough apartment unit residents.


A sliver of afternoon sun escaped from the black-out curtains drawn across the window. It illuminated the room’s dark brown laminate floor and the crumpled socks, overturned slippers, and a plastic hair-tie strewn across it in its wake before making its way to the bed pushed to one corner and the girl laying atop it. Her right cheek was smushed into her pillow, her blanket twisted around her splayed legs, and her eyes were closed. There were no indications of her being awake, save for her left ear, which was perked up to hear who her mom was gossiping about in the room over. Except the person Mama was gossiping about was her.’ “Yeah, Zeahaa graduated in 2020, during the pandemic,” Mama explained to someone over the phone in Punjabi. “Now she works part-time at a magazine?” Her parents still didn’t really understand what she did. Their experience with journalism began with WhatsApp and ended at the misinforming YouTube videos they came and shared across it. What she did, aside from agonizing over cover letters for full-time jobs, was spend hours thinking of article ideas. Then typing up. Them e-mailing them to media outlets only to (mostly) receive rejections--when she received a reply at all. She shook that hangnail of a thought away and scrunched her already closed eyes, trying to work out whom Mama was giving an unrestrained account of her life to. Mama was speaking quite early in the day, considering it was a Saturday, so she was likely speaking to someone in Pakistan—the 9-hour time difference between Lahore and Mississauga made it the best time to talk. Mama was speaking in Punjabi, so it couldn’t be her friends—she only spoke to them in Urdu. It also couldn’t be any of her aunts and uncles or cousins—

they had already heard about these ups and mostly downs as they were happening. It was likely one of Mama’s long-distant relatives in Pakistan. “All I know is that she stays up all night click-clacking away on her laptop,” Mama continued. “I keep telling her to sleep properly but she doesn’t listen.” Mama didn’t understand that she couldn’t sleep early even if she tried. The constant rejections—from both outlets and employers had calcified something she had suspected from a young age but tamped down, only for it to bubble up again—that she was destined to be a failure. She had spent countless nights over the past several years hunched over her laptop, poring over her notes and annotating her textbooks only to gain more nights of her being hunched over her laptop. The rejections from employers, especially, had wounded her so deeply, she had stopped applying, unable to withstand further bloodletting. She was already low on iron. “It’ll be okay,” She had comforted herself in 2020, when she had first started unsuccessfully


hunting. “Nobody’s

hiring right now because of the pandemic.” She repeated this refrain even though the job posting she had applied to was evidence that people were hiring—just not her. And now, two years into the pandemic—an impossible thought—when things had opened up yet her employment prospects still hadn’t, it was not okay. Every time she tried to go to sleep early, an endless loop of scary scenarios kept her up. Scenarios where an enormous amount of interest would accumulate on her student loans, and her ability to enjoy life would

dissipate. Or where she never found a fulfilling, full-time job and was instead lost in dead-end, minimum wage jobs. Or where she never met a romantic partner and died alone and unloved. Or where all three happened. Or where she—She would force herself to stop before she gave herself hypertension. “What should I do?” She often wondered as her eyes traced patterns onto her ceiling. “Should I look harder? Brag about myself on LinkedIn?” “Should I go to grad school?” She could imagine herself before a room full of students in whom she would foster a love for linguistics but she didn’t know if she wanted to go so she could realize this dream or because she missed the comfort of school. “Should I get married?” Every time she tapped

through Instagram, another friend or a friend of a friend or an acquaintance she really should unfollow was beaming at the camera alongside her equally radiant groom, the only thing more vivid than her smile being her telling red lehenga. How did you even meet? She would wonder while debating whether to like the post or scroll past it. I thought we were supposed to be a pandemic. “Should I also find someone?” The mere thought of initiating a partner hunt alongside worrying about her job, her debt, and an ongoing pandemic marrying them scared her. But so did the thought that if she didn’t, she would be—and she detested thinking of herself like this—past her prime, in childbearing years at least. “Should I just give up?” She was going to follow that thought into a mental blackhole of pessimism and nihilism until a comment from Mama interrupted her. “It’s all just a ploy to get us vaccinated,” Mama chuckled. “They’ve got us getting our third and fourth shots. Who knows how long this will go.”

She clenched her teeth at the obligatory anti-vax comment Mama peppered into every conversation she had, regardless of who it was with. Her parents had gotten both their vaccinations as well as a booster shot and dutifully wore masks— though she often had to remind them to pull it over their nose. However, an unhealthy diet of misinformation pumped into their brain through WhatsApp and YouTube meant that they both lightly dabbled in COVID conspiracy theories. And the equally unhealthy mindset in South Asian culture of elders always being right meant that they refused to accept any evidence she and her siblings cited during the numerous arguments between them over this subject. Her eyes open; anger

fluttered the and

frustration coursing through her in the wake of Mama’s antivax comment had awakened her. She grasped around her bed, underneath her pillow, then in the crevice between her mattress and the bed frame before her hand finally connected with the thick, rectangular form of her phone. Her fingers traced over the familiar embossing on her phone case before she pulled the phone up to her face and squinted at its screen. “12:45pm,” announced her phone. She groaned and buried her face back in her pillow. While she willed sleep to come back to her, she fixated on a thought she had comforted herself with often over the past two years: “It can’t go on forever, right?”

Throughout the pandemic there has been an observable social disconnect, possibly stemming from long periods of isolation, of which the outcome is clear: reductive explanations have become commonplace. The most convenient of which was, and to some extent continues to be, South Asians are responsible for high rates of COVID-19 in their communities. 1 This explanation relies on culture as the culprit. Although South Asians have been disportionately affected by the pandemic, it is not fair to assume hospitable nature and gatherings are entirely the cause. 2 3 This explanation insinuates that South Asians are not socially cognizant when, in fact, they and other racialized communities are well aware of the risks and hardships they endure as a result of the pandemic. A recent study by the Population Health Research Institute determined that people in the most diverse neighborhoods had three times higher infection, four times the hospitalization, four times the intensive care unit admission, and two times the death rate from COVID-19 as compared to less diverse communities. 4 Clearly, high density communities, often with immigrants, newcomers, and multigenerational households, were and are COVID-19 hotspots. South Asian participants in the COVID CommUNITY study acknowledged this with almost 50% reporting that their risk of acquiring COVID-19 was high due to their location. 5 By capturing the South Asian experience in simplistic terms, the media has influenced popular thought into believing that individual action is most important and an examination of social inequities is unnecessary. I have seen this projected in two ways: (1) workplace vulnerability is not sufficiently considered during COVID-19 waves and (2) vaccine hesitancy is regarded as a cultural problem. By workplace vulnerability I refer to the overrepresentation of South Asians in low-wage essential work and related exposure to COVID-19. 6 Conversely, vaccine hesitancy is more difficult to describe because it is closely tied to sentiment and public confidence in vaccine roll-out efforts. In my work with vaccine engagement, I have spent considerable time trying to understand hesitancy and its relation to misinformation as the two are not synonymous. At 82.5%, an overwhelming majority of South Asians surveyed by Statistics Canada are willing to get vaccinated. 7 Moreover, the hesitancy of South Asian communities is unlike that found in non-racialized communities and cannot be equated to anti-vax ideas. Instead, hesitancy is a broader structural concern often rooted in access barriers. For example, many community members expressed that they could not get vaccinated because they did not have transportation to clinics or they did not understand how to navigate English

websites on vaccines. What complicates hesitancy further in racialized communities is that it is also linked to historic mistrust of healthcare systems. Misinformation is best explained as the outcome of that mistrust and persists because it is a result of the disconnect I mentioned earlier. ​ The continuous disparaging of South Asians for issues that happen to them results in an environment where people think it is against their best interests to get vaccinated. It is the logic of “if my culture is the reason I am deeply affected and there is no recognition of structural inadequacies, I am better off relying on my own network or alternative sources to understand vaccines.” Simply, it is a gap initiated by accusations and perpetuated by feelings of ostracization. The misinformation around vaccines circulating in marginalized communities reflect this knowledge gap. Hesitancy is normal in South Asian communities and is something SAVEC has worked to overcome throughout the pandemic. It takes significant effort to build trust in public health measures and the last year has proven this without a doubt. Now, community members have expressed that “COVID is over” and booster shots are redundant as they are “healthy enough.” 8 These statements reveal that our communities are tired and, despite our best efforts, the pandemic has exposed the social divides that neglect racialized communities. Recovery is not possible without addressing this neglect. Rebuilding cannot sincerely happen if what we are working to rebuild is the same structures that left South Asians and others disportionately affected by COVID-19.


REFERENCES AND PHOTO CREDITS Page 9: On Vaccine Confidence 1: Zain Chagla, Sumon Chakrabarti, and Tajinder Kaura, “South Asians Play a Part in Covid-19 Transmission and We Need to Acknowledge It,”, November 15, 2020, contributors/2020/11/15/south-asians-play-a-part-in-covid19-transmission-and-we-need-to-acknowledge-it.html.​ 2: Seher Shafiq, “Don’t Blame ‘Culture’ for Covid-19 Rates in South Asian Communities ,” First Policy Response, November 16, 2020, https://policyresponse. ca/dont-blame-culture-for-covid-19-rates-in-south-asiancommunities/.​ 3: Rishi Nagar, “Stop Stigmatizing South Asians for High Infection Rates | CBC News,” CBC, December 8, 2020, 4: Sonia S Anand et al., “What Factors Converged to Create a Covid-19 Hot-Spot? Lessons from the South Asian Community in Ontario,” n.d., /2022.04.01.22273252. 5: Ibid. 6: Tijhiana Rose Thobani and Zahid Ahmad Butt, “The Increasing Vulnerability of South Asians in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19, no. 5 (February 27, 2022): p. 2786, ijerph19052786. 7: “COVID-19 Vaccine Willingness among Canadian Population Groups,” Statistics Canada (Government of Canada, March 26, 2021), n1/pub/45-28-0001/2021001/article/00011-eng.htm. 8: These are common phrases reported by SAVEC outreach workers and vaccine engagement ambassadors.


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1: Images by Tooba Syed 3: Images provided by Nita Goswami 6: Images provided by Nita Goswami 10: Image by Tooba Syed

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JULY 2022

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