Race relation hero Dr Hari Shukla is a serial recipient of Queen’s Honours and a familiar face among the Northerners. The 87-year-old father-of-four and grandfather-of-nine has dedicated most of his life to the Tyne and Wear Racial Equality Council and on 8 December 2020, became the first Asian to receive coronavirus vaccine, along with wife Ranjan.
Dr Shukla went to school in Kampala and got his Teacher’s Certificate in Kenya. He then got his Certificate of Education at Exeter University and later returned to Kenya to teach. He was offered his first job in race relation at Scunthorpe before moving to Newcastle in 1974, where he got the job of Director of the Tyne and Wear Racial Equality Council later.
He has been awarded an MBE, OBE and a CBE for his work in race relations and his efforts to bring communities together. He has told his story of childhood, education and work in a book called ‘The Art of Giving’.
Fast forward to 2021 and Dr Shukla is still trying to help the community by fighting misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine. In an exclusive interview, he told this newsweekly, that leadership plays a vital role in today's Britain, in order to encourage Asians come forward and be vaccinated.
AV: Dr Shukla, you have been the first Asian man to be vaccinated in the UK along with your wife. What is your message for the community?
Since 8 December, people have been ringing us to find out about side effects. We had our second jab on 20 January 2021. We have no side effects at all. The hospital keeps ringing to check on us too.
There are 12,000 Hindus in the North East and Cumbria and the same number of Sikhs and many Chinese elderlies. I am the honorary Chair of North East Chinese population. We have been campaigning about the positives of vaccination and nobody has objected to it.
In our area people listen to those with medical knowledge and ignore false information.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to do. People who feel a little trepidation towards the vaccine- we are still trying to convince them as they should not miss this opportunity.
AV: How important is the leadership to vaccinate the community?
There is the fear of unknown among us. Members of the ethnic minority communities depend on the right leadership. Whatever a leader says they will do because they trust them. Leaders have contact with local authorities, but ordinary people do not have that.
It is important to listen to the scientists, medical health professionals about safety. If people don’t take this vaccine, there will be a domino effect in the community.
I have worked in the North East for 45 years with all communities. There are 140 nationalities including Indians. I have helped them right from the beginning to resettle here and they trust me. I have told them if I had any doubts, I would not have taken this vaccine myself. Though I have retired, people still take my advice into consideration.
We must remember that we need to be very careful about what we say. I keep giving my own example to people. I keep ringing people and reminding them- particularly encourage elderlies, especially those who do not understand the system, to go and vaccinate themselves. This is the only way to fight this virus.
AV: Do you think language barrier could be deterring vaccine intake?
Elderly people in the Chinese and Asian communities often don’t speak English. They need help and rely on the advice they get from the people they know about the importance of this vaccination. Those who have no idea at all, they frighten others with wrong information. So, those advising must be very careful.
AV: Do you think institutional racism is leading to biases or distrust?
In some areas racism still exist and people take advantage of the situation, mislead and frighten people giving wrong information. We need to listen to those who are sincere and help people.
AV: You have seen Britain’s race-relation evolve. Do you think there has been a real progress?
In Newcastle, there was a lot of racial prejudice in the 1970s and 80s. When I started my work in 1974, multi-cultural society was regarded as a problem. I had to help people one by one to explain that everyone has a role to play and are a part of the community. The first three years were very hard, and people told me on my face, ‘we don’t need race-relations here, you go home’.
But that changed after decades of working with the universities, police, councils and the health service.
Just before I retired, I invited 100 companies and asked if they would like to support race equality. Not only they supported it, but they also encouraged others. Employment and equality have improved in our area. Every school has multi-faith programmes educating students.
There might be individual problems here and there. But that isn’t a community problem.
People from our community have also made tremendous contributions and others respect them. But race relation work needs to continue on a daily basis in order to motivate people and acknowledge everyone’s efforts. It is a complicated area, and we need to be patient.
While we should welcome the newcomers with open arms, they must realise that they are in Britain because they wanted to be here and not because they were forced to come here. They must not sit isolated but come forward, be responsible and get involved in the community. Once they start playing their role in the community, others will also realise that immigrants are here to add to the fabric of the society and live with dignity.
AV: Do you think immigrants still need to integrate better?
It is a two-way process. We need to support the immigrants to get accustomed to our way of life here, but it is also important for them to be willing to learn the new norms. We need to hold their hands, but at the same time they also need to let go of their fear of non-acceptance and build their confidence.