On my way back from a successful trip to the bookstore last Tuesday, I pulled over to check my phone and found three missed calls and a text from my best friend: “Call me back, it’s important.”
Worried, I called back immediately.
She explained to me how her friend, a nurse, found out from her sister, also a nurse, that there was a pop-up vaccination clinic at Newton Athletic Park.
She informed me that anyone 18 and older could get their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine by simply dropping in and lining up.
She said she even personally knew people around our age who were able to get vaccinated that day, but by the time I had returned her call, the lines were insanely long.
Regardless, I was both curious and excited, so I picked up my brother and drove to the park to see if this rumour was really true.
By the time I got to Newton Athletic Park, I saw a short line of people and a cluster of tents with healthcare workers administering vaccines to individuals from a wide range of ages.
We quickly understood that they were not able to accommodate more people, but we were told that there would be another pop-up the following day, opening at 10am.
That night I searched the Fraser Health website and Twitter for announcements related to the pop-up, but found nothing corroborating the pop-up clinic I visited earlier that same day.
Instead, I saw announcements for other Fraser Health pop-ups that were for those over 30 years old, that were exclusively offering AstraZeneca.
Knowing I had the day off, I made a plan to try my luck at Newton Athletic Park the next morning for a shot at getting vaccinated.
My brother and I got to the park at 7:45am the following morning,(thinking we’d be one of the first ones there) and were shocked to find a line much longer than we had anticipated.
I saw a number of community members lined up past the playground, around the volleyball net and alongside a long grass field of the park, which spans 22 hectares.
The space that was filled with tents and healthcare workers the day before was empty, despite the long lineups. As we walked in search of the end of the line, I saw familiar faces. Friends and their family members dressed warmly in anticipation for the rain that would inevitably come. Many brought lawn chairs and books and had prepared themselves for a day of waiting.
When we finally found the end of the line we settled ourselves behind two women who looked around my age, and their grandmother who immediately reminded me of my own. I saw so many more elders than I had expected.
These were elders who should have been eligible to book an appointment through the appropriate channels, but instead were opting to stand outside for hours. This in and of itself was a communications failure, given that there was a clear language and communication barrier that caused this to happen in the first place.
As I stood in line, the sight of hundreds of people, wearing masks, strapped in for a long day just for the mere chance of vaccination felt surreal -- apocalyptic, even.
As the reality of the day sunk in, I found myself fighting off tears and feeling desperate for my community.
The line remained in that same spot for a while, with no indication of movement. Initially, I passed time on the phone with my friend who was a few dozen people ahead of me in line, taking our guesses at how the day would unfold.
Eventually, the Fraser Health staff arrived and began setting up for the day. One or two security guards scanned the lines with a notepad, attempting to count the number of people in line, doing their best to answer the numerous questions being thrown their way.
Since there were not many people on site to tell us what was going on, information was passed through the line not unlike a game of telephone -- similar to how the information around the clinic itself was communicated to the public.
Someone who was closer to the front of the line would overhear something said by a security guard, or healthcare worker and call someone who was a bit further back, who would pass the information on to someone even further back and so on.
Slowly, we began to piece together what was happening. Some people had been waiting in line since 5 A.M. in hopes of getting vaccinated. Others camped out in their cars. Word got around that there were 400 vaccines to give out, but many were told to stay in line due to the possibility of requesting more vaccines from Fraser Health for the same day.
The line steadily began and our telephone game revealed that people were getting time-stamped tickets that would supposedly ensure them a vaccine.
Visibly stressed workers in fluorescent vests made their way through the line, checking identification, registration numbers and zip-codes that proved the person in line lived in a hotspot. If this was confirmed, you would get a ticket and you were told to stay in line. Up until that moment, I didn't even know my neighbourhood qualified as a hotspot, I just lined up on the chance I would get vaccinated.
One of the workers was constantly followed by a small swarm of people, asking questions about what was happening.
One person asked if she would still be able to get vaccinated if she lives in Surrey, but her legal address is in Vancouver. She was told no. Others asked how many doses were actually there and if they could quickly leave the line to run an errand or pick-up a family member.
It was clear the workers themselves were operating off of a very limited scope of information, and were tired from having to walk back and forth throughout a line filled with hundreds of people.
But what struck me the hardest was the elders who felt lost throughout the process, without much support to assist them.
An elderly woman approached the worker as she was checking my ID, and asked the worker in Punjabi if she was good to go. The worker explained that she would need a registration number and the woman told her that she did not have a cell phone and did not know what a registration number was.
I pulled out my phone and registered the woman and her husband, ripped out a page in my journal and wrote down their registration number. I did my best to explain in Punjabi what was going to happen throughout the day and what they could expect.
I realized then that the reason so many elders in my community were standing in line that day was because public health messaging about vaccine registration and booking has not been made accessible to those who need it most.
More stories explaining why people chose to stand in line for hours to get vaccinated came to light. Many people who were eligible to get vaccinated remarked that it was very difficult to find vaccination appointments in Surrey and they did not have the means to venture to other cities to get vaccinated.
Others were apprehensive about receiving AstraZeneca, and this pop-up had the opportunity to receive Pfizer or Moderna. Others simply heard it was happening, had never navigated the registration process due to lack of technological skills and language barriers and saw this as a chance to finally get vaccinated.
However, I also witnessed resilience blossom amongst those standing in line. Young people offered their lawn chairs to the elders in line. Some browsed the line, offering food and water to those who needed it. Many were cracking jokes and formed bonds with the people around them.
There was uncertainty in the air, many unsure about if they would receive a vaccine and stressed because they had sacrificed a day of work to be there.
The atmosphere became much more tense when people towards the back of the line, who had been waiting for hours and were told they were guaranteed a vaccine, were told they would no longer be able to get vaccinated. There was an echo of raised voices, many angry that they had wasted their day and wished they would have been told earlier that there were not enough vaccines for them.
Even after the pop-up had closed, Fraser Health still had yet to verify these pop-ups and rumours of upcoming clinics began to circulate.
Hundreds of people lined up the next morning at Bear Creek Park and Newton Athletic Park in hopes of securing a vaccine. No vaccines were administered at those sites, and people went home empty-handed -- many of whom sacrificed another day’s worth of pay.
Ultimately, getting people vaccinated and building immunity in high transmission communities is great. But the way in which Fraser Health is going about vaccinating those people reveals existing gaps and inequities for vulnerable populations in Surrey, in ways that disproportionately impact racialized communities.
It is absolutely vital that Fraser Health re-evaluates their approach with community input. It is a matter of life or death.
I can’t help but wonder why such a disorganized approach has not been taken in other areas that target hotspots, like Whistler. Would this kind of approach ever be acceptable? Would it have ever gotten to this point?
Still, cancelling the pop-ups in Surrey helps no one.
It has become painfully evident that our community is desperate to get vaccinated. We need to make vaccines accessible to people who work full-time, who are interacting with people on a daily basis.
We need to be taking measures to ensure that elders who speak different languages, or do not have access to technology are aware of how to book an appointment to get vaccinated.
We should be engaging with community members who are itching to help their communities handle the pandemic, but are not being looped in to the conversation with health authorities.
We need to continue having pop-ups with adequate notice and proper organization plans, so elders don’t have to wait in the rain for hours and people do not have to be turned away.
A failure to do this means to deny our community fair and just healthcare during a time where fear and paranoia is at an all time high.
The Surrey vaccination pop-up revealed to me that Fraser Health is failing us and neglecting the needs of our community.
We must demand better because we deserve better.
Jeevan is a UBC Sociology student, writer and self-proclaimed cinephile (to annoy the film majors). An aspiring journalist, she loves writing silly little articles about pop-culture, media, politics and the South Asian experience while balancing her job in community-engaged learning. When she isn't having an existential crisis, you can find her over-caffeinating, binging a new show or trying to prove that she's a much cooler, brown Rory Gilmore.