The people making a difference: the public health champion who met his hero, Simon Cowell

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

When Alfred Oyekoya had his first Covid vaccine in January last year, he wanted a photograph of the event. “I needed a picture of me getting the vaccine, to educate my community,” says Oyekoya, 38, a civil servant living in Swansea. “The staff refused, telling me not to worry about education – the NHS was doing all that.”

He was crestfallen. “People were expecting me to have proof that I’d taken the vaccine.” Oyekoya returned to the vaccination centre a few hours later and this time was more insistent. Eventually the staff relented, took a photo of him, and Oyekoya uploaded the picture to social media.

He wasn’t being difficult. As someone known in Swansea’s African community for his public health advocacy – Oyekoya is British-Nigerian – he knew his decision would carry a lot of weight.

‘People thought the vaccine was for white people, because the pandemic had a bigger impact in Europe and North America’

Oyekoya is a leader in the not-for-profit group BAME Mental Health Support (BMHS). Before the pandemic, it offered psychological support, including self-esteem workshops and employment support, to asylum seekers, international students and people newly arrived in the UK.

During the pandemic, BMHS encouraged vaccine uptake among ethnic minorities. “There’s a confidence issue in BAME communities,” Oyekoya says, “which is often due to historical injustice. There’s also the convenience issue – how easy it is to get to the appointment – and the complacency issue, when people think their immune system is good, so they won’t be affected.”

The easiest of these issues to tackle is convenience. BMHS has a community bus and used it during the initial rollout to ferry people to vaccination centres. More difficult was the complacency issue. “People asked why they should take the vaccine as they never got sick. I’d tell them, ‘You’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for your community.’ We tried to make them see the bigger picture.” There was sometimes a view that Covid didn’t affect minorities. “People thought it was only for white people,” says Oyekoya, “because the pandemic has had a bigger impact in Europe and North America. They would say, ‘How come Africa isn’t on its knees?’”

Throughout last year, Oyekoya hosted Zoom sessions every Saturday, inviting people to call in with questions about the vaccine. These came about after he was disappointed by a government-run outreach session: “They were just talking at people, without giving them an opportunity to engage. I thought, this is just not working.”

Swansea resident Aisha Yussuf says: “The sessions Alfred led gave my parents and I the opportunity to address our fears about the vaccine. We are now fully vaccinated. My mum had language barriers, and it was great that there was an Arabic-speaking doctor on the panel to answer her questions.”

Oyekoya can’t get through to everyone. “We do get some abusive comments,” he says, “mostly on Facebook and YouTube. Sometimes doctors themselves are spreading conspiracy theories.”

Oyekoya speaks fast, and with passion. The first time we talk, he’s running errands in his car. He devotes all his spare time to community work. “I get a lot of fulfilment from helping people,” he says. “I feel like, if my time was up tomorrow, I’ll have done my part.” He thinks a lot about how best to use the influence he has. “Everyone has a measure of influence. You’ve got to use it to help others.”

Related: The people making a difference: meet the founder of the UK’s first Trans Pride

Now, after the vaccine drive, Oyekoya is back to business as usual: normalising mental health conversations in ethnic minority communities across Wales, as well running a Sunday games evening for children and young people.

He is also a huge Simon Cowell fan. “I think about starting a petition for him to be knighted,” Oyekoya says, absolutely seriously. “He’s made such a contribution to UK entertainment. I like his honesty. And we have the same dress sense.”

Cowell’s team arranged for Oyekoya and his wife, Nancy, to attend the Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals. They sat in the front row and were taken to meet the man himself backstage. “He’s not as big as he looks on TV,” says Oyekoya. “He was so inquisitive and asked really good questions. I told him I really respect him and love him for his candour. I always say, ‘In a world filled with mendacity, he is a shining light.’ He said he would love to see us again.”

Cowell arranged for Oyekoya and his wife to return for the live final, with their sons. “It was wonderful,” he says. “We’re still talking about it and looking at the pictures.”

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