Dharmesh Parikh rolled up his sleeve and as the needle headed for his arm, a wide grin stretched across his face. He wasn’t nervous, and he didn’t need reassurance. Within a few minutes he was all done, and walking out of the vaccination centre’s doors in less time than it had taken him to get there. He couldn’t help but feel victorious.
“I felt fantastic, fabulous. I’d done my part.”
Dharmesh is just one of the 200,000 plus Indian New Zealanders heeding the call to get vaccinated. The ethnic group makes up the largest eligible Asian population, and has one of the highest uptakes of the Covid-19 vaccine per capita among ethnic groups, according to Ministry of Health data. In fact, the Indian population is so highly vaccinated it has made a mockery of the figures expected based on the 2020 population of health services users: 103 percent of those eligible have had a shot, and 97 percent are fully vaccinated. The figures outperform health service user expectations across all age demographics and DHBs.
But while media coverage has often focussed on where Covid-19 vaccination rates need to be lifted, and more recently, on protests by those who refuse to be vaccinated, the quiet efforts of New Zealand’s largest Asian community have been largely ignored. So why have more than 200,000 Indian New Zealanders been so eager to get the jab?
Dharmesh Parikh was first up in the vaccine roll-out, courtesy of his wife’s group one status. He booked his first appointment as soon as an announcement was made, and was fully vaccinated by the end of March. When the vaccine became available for over 12s, he didn’t hesitate to sign his children up either.
“I have twins, two girls, Sia and Dia. The first day they made the announcement that this is open for kids over the age of 12, we booked it immediately, within the same hour. They’ve been fully vaccinated for about a month now. My youngest daughter Shyla is nine. If it becomes available for her, I’ll probably book it the same hour as well.”
Dharmesh had been following any news of a vaccine since the pandemic arrived, and was staying up-to-date with Medsafe’s process. He says a strong trust in medical authority meant there was never any question around whether or not he’d be getting himself and his family vaccinated.
“There was plenty of rich information on what the process was. It was research-based, they did clinical trials, they worked to a set of government regulations. There was no reason for me not to trust the medical system. Health and education are two pillars of society – it’s something you cannot do without – and I’m confident that the industry is robust, it’s resilient, and they’re looking for innovative ways to make our lives wonderful.
“My brother is a live kidney donor to my mum, so my mum’s a transplant patient coming up to her fourteenth year of receiving it. These people saved my mum’s life. They actually cut open my brother, took the kidney out and put it in my mum, and she’s alive. She had to consult with the doctor, but she also got the vaccine without any hesitancy. And actually, if you look at some of these medications that you have on shelves, it’s by Pfizer, the company who made this vaccine. This is a trusted company for me.”
Indian-born GP Dr Sapna Samant has a practice in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, where a majority of her patients are of Indian descent. She says a general trust in medical bodies and vaccinations isn’t just down to chance for Indian New Zealanders, but is a cultural attitude formed over many years.
“All of us come from countries where we have seen even the two generations above us being affected by these infectious diseases, and we know what that means. We have seen people die, we have seen people become very sick, we have seen people who have not been able to access healthcare. We’ve seen all of this, and we don’t want that for ourselves.”
She says past lessons have created a sense of proactivity and pragmatism within Indians both in India and abroad.
“In a massive country like India, if you fall sick, that means you can’t go to work, there is no social security. If you don’t work, you’re not earning money. If you don’t earn money, you’re not feeding your family, and it’s just sort of like a domino effect. Might as well take the injection and get on with life, because that means I’m earning money and I’m feeding my family.
“We carry those attitudes with us when we move overseas. Those stereotypes of the hard-working Indian or the hard-working Asian, that comes from generations of malnutrition, poverty. Those stories are alive in our heads. We don’t want to go back there, so we just do whatever it takes.”
It’s an attitude Dharmesh has carried with him since he arrived in New Zealand more than 35 years ago. He hopes getting immunised will mean getting back on track to fulfilling long-held dreams for himself and his children.
“We didn’t come here to be unsuccessful. My kids are striving for academic excellence, in as many fields and as many facets and subjects as they can. I’m working towards several goals in my life, financial goals that I want to achieve and goals in my career. If we get the vaccination, we get back to contributing positively again.”
Monisha Kumar remembers a measles epidemic growing up in Fiji, where vaccinations were rolled out for students during school. She also remembers, more than 10 years ago, wearing a face-mask in Hong Kong airport, having travelled to India during the Swine Flu pandemic. She remembers others went to get vaccinated against the virus, and she did too.
“I was there for three months and I came back safe and sound. That was one of my life experiences, going to get vaccinated and being able to connect the dots… Now that another virus has come, I know that vaccinations do help.”
She says growing up in Fiji, getting vaccinated was a normal part of life.
“When we were six years old, we got a BCG [Bacillus Calmette-Guérin] injection. When we were 13 years old we got it for tetanus, rubella and BCG again. And in high school, we had measles break out at the time, and all the teenagers got vaccinated in school. They started [the roll out] in the school holidays, before school started in January. We had signed up to get it done, it was a procedure we’d gone through since primary. We were happy to get it, it was normal for us to get the shot and protect ourselves.”
Monisha is a secondary school teacher at One Tree Hill College, and heads her own dance company in Auckland. Like Dharmesh, she took the opportunity to get vaccinated at an earlier stage in the roll-out plan than intended.
“It was a waiting game for me with the different groups. I was told that maybe December I would be getting vaccinated. It’s quite a long time to wait, so when my mum – she’s in the 50-64 range – got her letter, she signed up and got me, my brother and my sister-in-law in for the first dose as well. That was in August, we went and got our second vaccination in October.”
Her story is similar to many Indian New Zealanders living in multi-generational homes, and Dr Sapna says these particular living arrangements may have contributed to the community’s higher rates of vaccine uptake – with individuals making the trip to the clinic a family affair.
“My mother lives with me. She’s 80, and I have a 10-year-old son. And knowing from my patients, a lot of them live in similar households with at least three generations living in the same house. We all want to take care of each other, so we want to make sure that nobody falls sick.
“You’re gonna take your mum to get a vaccine, then think I’m gonna get it as well. This is a cultural quirk too, isn’t it? We jump the queue. It’s a very Desi thing, to put in colloquial terms. We don’t want to line up for anything, we don’t want to stand in a queue. I know heaps of people who got it done by July. We’re due for a booster perhaps, if they allow us.”
But things weren’t quite as simple as that in Monisha’s household. Her dad was actually the first in their family eligible to get vaccinated – he just wasn’t too keen on getting it.
“He didn’t want to go and get the vaccine, he was against it, so we just let him be. He didn’t state his reasons but I could see one of them was fear, maybe he was scared.”
Eventually, however, Monisha realised she would have to talk her dad around if her business was to operate safely again.
“I run a dance company and I would want my dancers to come and rehearse at home if we ever need to work on a show, and I would want everyone in my household to be vaccinated so everything’s safe. I spoke to my dad regarding this, we had a good father-daughter kōrero. I said, ‘Look, I’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to a lot of people regarding the vaccine’. Everyone in my family knows I’m very strongly opinionated and that there are loads of reasons why I do things, I don’t just do things for the sake of doing it, there’s a lot of thought that’s gone behind it. And so he agreed.
“I think it was just me talking to him about it. You know, that role-modelling thing comes into effect. If you see someone in the family who’s gone and done it and see they’re okay, you know you’ll be okay. So that was our success story, that everyone in the house was able to get vaccinated.”
Monisha’s household isn’t the only place she’s experienced vaccine-hesitant attitudes. With vaccine mandates kicking in for teachers and school staff, there’s been a small uprising from some educators refusing to get the jab.
“Some teachers believe there’s a harmful chemical in the vaccine. Just two weeks ago, we got a clarification at my school. There was a forum our principal chose to have which was run by former students at One Tree Hill College. The doctors and nurses who were part of that forum explained what was actually in that vaccine. It was a really good forum to have, it really cleared some doubts.
“I’m teaching years 11, 12, and 13 face-to-face, we’re wearing masks, and I feel a sense of responsibility as a teacher. You have to be double-vaccinated, not just to protect yourself, but also to protect the children at school who are coming, and their parents who are trusting us as teachers to send their children to school, to make sure their child is safe.”
For Dharmesh, it’s not all about science. His faith is a driving force in his life and one of the many reasons he chose to get vaccinated. The way he explains it, his faith and the Hindu philosophy of being a compassionate people ties in to the need to be vaccinated for the greater good.
“We believe in medicine, we believe in remedies. Even in our scriptures and stories, in the great epics, there’s mention of various medications right throughout. My root as a Hindu and my philosophy is that we are a compassionate people, we need to look after one another. We won’t just believe in ‘look after yourself and your family and that’s done and dusted and everyone will look after themselves’. We believe in sacrifice as well. In Ramayan, Lord Rama went out and did his deeds without seeing any caste or creed, he helped people along his way. And that’s what we need to do, we need to help people along the way.”
Dharmesh says this means looking out for the more vulnerable members of his community too, particularly the elderly and the immuno-compromised.
“Last year when this broke out, you could see people who are really old or have had other medical conditions dying from it. It was really, really horrifying. If by me getting this vaccination I could be even one slight bit a contributing factor to them not getting it, then that’s the least I could do for the community. I consider myself healthy, I don’t have any pre-existing medical conditions, I’d be less likely to catch that virus and fall severely ill from it. My rationale to get the vaccine was to do my bit for the community, for the elderly especially.
“Also, if I’m not gonna fall sick and be a burden to the hospital system, then that’s one less bed they have to source from elsewhere. I’m freeing up that system, I’m out of the way. And why would I not want to be protected as well? If I was unfortunate and required hospitalisation and didn’t make it through, my family would suffer. It would be a burden on the community to support my family, or maybe they would make do, but without my support.”
Dr Sapna says while holistic healing practices rooted in Hinduism are common among Indian communities around the world, their teachings haven’t generally deterred people from seeking out science-based medical care.
“The Ayurvedic way of life, understanding your body and your digestive system, eating seasonally and eating the right kinds of foods, we still practice that. If you’re eating, you don’t eat the rice before the chapati, you always eat the chapati before the rice, and if you have a round thali, the food is served in a specific way. But I would say these beliefs crossover more into matters of wellbeing. There’s nothing in religions from South Asia that says, ‘if you believe in a certain God, then you should not be taking these kinds of medicines’. That is not there.”
While the high rate of vaccination among the Indian population is impressive, Dr Sapna is reticent about comparing statistics with those of other ethnic groups, saying the experience of the Indian diaspora in New Zealand is incomparable to that of its indigineous peoples, as are the sets of obstacles they face.
“Vulnerable communities here and their histories, their colonial history, that’s really, really complex. A lack of trust in authority is one of the reasons why people tend not to get vaccinated. It’s too complex to compare. But without getting into any of that, I would say that actually, not getting the vaccine is going to harm the community more, because more people are going to fall sick, more people are going to die. Just that fear of death and the fear of all the morbidity that’s going to affect these communities should be enough for them to get vaccinated, rather than any religion or distrust in authority. The desire to get on with life is something that can be learned from us. If there is a solution, get it and move forward, you know? But that’s just putting it really simplistically.”
Monisha is keen to move forward and says it would be nice to regain some form of normalcy.
“We know that living with Covid is gonna be a new norm – and I know that there are people whose thinking is still rigid and they don’t want to change – but look at other countries and how they’re living with Covid now. You look at India, everything’s open now. They’re wearing masks, they’re social distancing, they’re going for tests if they’re sick, they’re getting vaccinated – we can see it’s working.”
And if you’re looking for a real life example of the vaccine at work, Dharmesh says he’s your man.
“I’ve been vaccinated since March. I survived, I’m laughing, I’m well. My kids have been vaccinated, they’re well. If this vaccine was having adverse effects, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. I’m one of the millions who’ve got it. These people who have made this vaccine, they’re humans like you and I. They’re from our communities. Why on earth would they come up with something that was going to put your life in danger? Why would they go through this whole huge, expensive, rigmarole process if it’s not going to make a positive difference? Please, take the opportunity, trust the humans, and if you’re hesitant, do give it another thought.”