By Janice Hayes Kyser
Throughout her career in information technology Madeline managed people. She made complicated decisions with high stakes.
She says her decision to forego the COVID-19 vaccine was not an easy one since she lives with and helps care for her 91-year-old mother. Still, it was a deep mistrust of government and the health care industry that ultimately led her to say no to the vaccine.
“I do not trust this government to do the right thing for me,” says the 72-year-old who lives in West Los Angeles. “At this point, I have far more questions than they have answers. I am not going to put something in my body that hasn’t been properly tested and is being thrust upon me by a government and a country that has a history of making decisions that are not in the best interest of Black and brown people.”
She says fear of being attacked for her decision is why she prefers not to share her last name. Madeline is one of the never-vaxxers, people who say they will not get the vaccine, regardless of the pleas from politicians, scientists and friends and family to do so.
While vaccine hesitancy has many causes, research suggests that one fundamental instinct is driving it — a lack of trust in leadership, science and humanity, in general. This crisis of trust is fueling the health crisis, say experts.
“We see so much fear and misinformation out here,” says Cynthia Key, a nurse with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “We hear people who are afraid of the side effects, people who believe the conspiracy theories that are being promoted on social media, people who have had bad experiences with the health care system, those that don’t trust government and others who believe their bodies were designed by God to withstand any and everything.
“We hear it all. Our job is to listen, to be patient and to validate people’s concerns while educating them about the benefits of the vaccine.”
Key and her colleague, Dr. David Bolour, do that by taking their message to the people. They have a tent set up at Ted Watkins Park in Watts, where they not only give the vaccine, they offer other medical advice along with a heaping dose of empathy.
Both Bolour and Key say they understand the mistrust they see among Black and brown residents of Watts based on the systemic racism that is imbedded in the health care system. They also realize that there are lots of rumors and misinformation on social media and many conflicting sources of information that add to the confusion and distrust. Yet, as they seek to increase the number of Black and brown residents of Los Angeles who are vaccinated, they are encouraged by those who are willing to listen and engage.
Their mission is an important one, since according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.
“I have met so many people who are afraid and totally against the vaccine and I listen because everyone has their story and deserves to be heard,” says Dr. Bolour. “I have been blown away by the number of people who were genuinely afraid, but were open to hearing another view and turned around and came back to get the shot.
“It really is about letting people express themselves, making them feel heard and sometimes they come around and that is a great feeling for us, because we know the more people who get the vaccine, the more protected the community, the city and the country will be.”
Key, who is African American, believes that providing people of color with culturally sensitive materials is essential to not only educating them about the benefits of the vaccine, but helping to restore trust. Key says engaging trusted community members who share the same race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture and religious beliefs is an effective way to get more people to take the vaccine. Word of mouth, success stories from those who have taken the vaccine without any side effects, is another powerful persuader, says Key.
According to Dr. Bolour, 55% of Black residents of Los Angeles County have received at least one shot and 60% of Hispanics compared to 73% of the county’s white population and 82% of the county’s Asian residents.
Statistics don’t move Joyce, 72, who lives in the Crenshaw District. She says there is nothing anyone can tell her that would persuade her to trust the vaccine and what she refers to as the government-sponsored pharmaceutical companies behind it.
“Follow the money,” she says. “This country has never cared about the health of its citizens, especially African Americans,” she says.
Madeline agrees pointing to what she calls the selective concern and hypocrisy of politicians. She says she cannot reconcile the fact that the same government that is mandating vaccines for federal, state and city workers to keep their jobs allows a parent to gift an under-age child an assault rifle to walk into school in her home state of Michigan and kill four youth.
“Where’s the concern for the safety of the citizenry in this case, in the Ahmaud Arbery case, [and] in so many others?” she asks.
Across the country in Lansing, Michigan, 69-year-old John Ross, says his decision to reject the vaccine is also fueled by distrust in a system that has a long history of abusing Black people.
“The ancestors of the same people who put my people in chains and continue to gun us down and demean us everyday are now saying I want to help you. I don’t believe it and I will never believe it,” says Ross, who is a retired educator.
“I read, I question and I have seen all of the bad and wicked decisions this country has made,” Ross added. “People ask me all of the time, man, do you believe in science? I tell them, of course I believe in the science, I don’t believe in who is interpreting it, though. You can turn a fact into a lie if you have the platform to control it.”