Improving access to vaccines for everyone

When Ottawa Public Health recognized that inequity is driving the COVID pandemic, they turned to Karim Mekki and his team for help finding solutions.

“You can literally see vaccine rates which are totally different in these neighbourhoods,” he says. “The very same communities that face inequities every day of their lives.”

For over 15 years, Karim has dedicated his career to working with low-income families and refugees. And he’s learned how to build relationships – and trust – with community partners.

Now, he leads a new team at Ottawa Public Health addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID on racialized and marginalized communities.

“Our work is essential,” says Karim. “The pandemic has forced us to not turn a blind eye to pre-existing social inequities.”

By leading Ottawa Public Health towards deeper and more meaningful engagement with diverse communities, Karim’s team is working to address immediate needs and focus attention on the systemic issues that drive inequality. 

“We’ve been able to shape and change Ottawa Public Health’s approaches,” Karim says.

From successfully advocating for pop-up vaccine clinics to knocking on thousands of doors to share information with isolated residents, Karim can see the difference his team is making.

He recalls one man’s tears of joy as he received his first dose, after a knock on his door from a member of Karim’s team.

“We’re seeing some great progress,” he says. And he gives credit to community partners throughout the city, including community health centres, the Boys and Girls Club, Ottawa Community Housing, community resources centres, and local faith and resident leaders. 

“This is a united effort to support communities,” says Karim. “It’s allowed us to really close that gap between government institution and communities, where there was a pretty big disconnect before.”

Now, Karim wants to build on that progress by advocating for the transformation of neighbourhood vaccine clinics into health hubs that remain in the areas they serve.

“It makes sense for public health to be close to community,” he notes.

For Karim, it’s all about improving access to health for communities that face systemic barriers to everything from family doctors to stable housing and transportation.

“We don’t want to go back to normal,” Karim says. “We want to go back to something that’s better for all communities in Ottawa.”