To vaccinate or not to vaccinate against the COVID-19 virus is to me a non-question. After 2020, a grim year of death and devastation, I look at the rollout of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as a godsend. I am overjoyed that hospital workers and residents of nursing homes — people most exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19 — are receiving vaccines. That said, a worrisome pall of doubt exists over some groups, who wonder if they should be vaccinated when it is their turn.
One such group is African immigrants to the U.S., a group that is close and dear to me and worries me a great deal. Many of them have approached me wondering about what they should do. They have heard rumors that circulate among different immigrant groups: Nigerian, Francophone, Ethiopian, etc., about “bad things about the vaccines.” They are, as a group, particularly vulnerable to misinformation and tales of perceived threats from outside the group. Rumor and innuendo travel quickly within each group and paradoxically across porous communication channels to other groups. As a result, they all act as an echo chamber with one message: “the vaccine kills.”
I try to allay their fears and concerns. After 1 million doses of the vaccine were dispensed across the U.S., I pointed out scientific evidence: Not a single person has died from the vaccinations. Just today I reassured someone, “Believe in what you see and not what you hear.”
Doubts about vaccination is not new; rather it’s a decades-old story that has been magnified by various manufacturers of dissent and disinformation. Sowing doubts among vulnerable people, like African immigrants, has become a discombobulating art form to a medical scientist like myself. The scientific truth is crystal clear. But then I have a deep knowledge base of immunity and the history of vaccinations — against chickenpox, smallpox, poliomyelitis, and so on. My point is, the scientific basis for vaccines is solid. Logical pillars of the truth utilized to battle the 2020 COVID pandemic are based on science and mathematics. The use of masks, hand washing and distancing are based on facts.
A salient factor in the current non-vaccination conundrum has been the “Operation Warp Speed” moniker that was given to the rapid development of the coronavirus vaccine. If it took four to six years and millions of chicken eggs to develop other vaccines in the past, how is it possible in nine months to have a vaccine ready for use, people ask? Of course a new technology — the messenger RNA technique or m-RNA 127 — was used in this instance. Comprehending concepts about RNA and DNA and other intracellular functions is rather complex for a TV or radio talk show.
The mistrust factory has used that fact as a hammer to clobber a scientific reality. The trust we request of the public in government, in authority, in institutions is something very precious and nowadays a rare commodity. It is therefore no wonder that my African émigrés get confused, especially when white people speaking American English, in educated authoritative tones, doubt the vaccine’s efficacy and advise their followers not to take it. Surely it makes sense to be cautious.
Our work to separate innocent minds from malicious misinformation won’t be easy. It must be patient, thorough and profound — to reach all the dark spaces full of ignorance and misinformation. Science must be spoken in simpler terms, such that an immigrant from Laos, Gambia or Guatemala can comprehend it.
Despite the foregoing gloomy tone, I must highlight what Colorado’s scientific-minded governor has done since the outbreak of the pandemic. Gov. Jared Polis has methodically explained, in simple, easy-to-comprehend terms and diagrams, the meaning of the pandemic. Progress in different communities across the state, the number of hospital beds, ICU patients and relative mortality were plotted on graphs for all to see. It was all done in a gentle voice, appealing to our better angels, always emphasizing we all have a stake in each other’s well being. In this same spirit, I hope, I too talk to my brothers.
Pius Kamau, M.D., general surgery, is president of the Aurora-based Africa America Higher Education Partnerships; co-founder of the Africa Enterprise Group and president of the Consortium of African Diasporas in the U.S.A. He has been a National Public Radio commentator and a blogger, and is author of “The Doctor’s Date with Death.”