How COVID Vaccine Hesitancy Is Tearing Black Families Apart

Photo: Getty Images.
My baby cousin will always be just that to me: a baby. Even though she’s grown, a whole woman in her 20s, I will always see her as a toddler following me and my big brothers, and hers, around my childhood house, with a cheeky smile and the sweetest laugh. She’s a few years younger than me (we don’t need to get into how many exactly) and yet, she’s always been more mature and self-assured than I ever was at her age — at every age. Her mom, my first cousin, was always like a cool auntie to me. She introduced me to SWV and big hoop earrings, and was my fashion icon before any celebrity. They have been staples in my life, in all of its iterations, and I love them more than I ever expressed enough — that is, before we stopped speaking. 
There wasn’t a big blowup. It just came down to a simple event: I got married earlier this month and in order to attend my intimate wedding, my friends and family had to be double vaccinated, no exceptions. Aside from elderly family members attending, including my parents, the venue required proof of vaccination to enter. My cousins are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and so, through my mother, they declined my wedding invitation. My mom, a retired nurse, has been fielding most of the conversations about their vaccine status so I’ve been spared from the uncomfortable and frustrating talks in which a woman who devoted her career to medicine and saving people’s lives has had to try to convince her sister’s offspring to believe in science. Aside from a brief appearance at my wedding, where my baby cousin stood outside the venue and said a quick congratulations, I haven’t seen my cousins at all, or spoken to them. But I know that my older cousin may lose her job because of her refusal to get the vaccine, and that their decision has fractured our relationship, and put a permanent splinter in our family. 
And I know my family isn’t the only one navigating this. I know this because of the stats: Black people (in Canada and America alike, where most of my family resides) are more likely to be vaccine hesitant than other groups and their warranted distrust in the healthcare system is one of the reasons. And because when I was looking for stories from other vaccinated Black women going through the same thing, my DMs were flooded with frustrated family members. As the holidays approach, and as vaccine hesitancy remains steady, there are a lot of families dealing with the divisiveness that has come with this pandemic. 
Imani*, a 29-year-old from Mississippi, lives with her mother, a cancer survivor in her 60s who is not yet vaccinated. She says her mother believes a doctor on YouTube who is spreading misinformation that anyone who has taken the Pfizer vaccine will have five years to live, and that it makes women infertile. “My mother is at risk, and she is one of the closest people to me. I have watched many people around me lose their parents in this pandemic, and would not forgive myself if I harmed my mother,” Imani says over email. She is afraid of bringing the virus home so she doesn’t go out, and she is keeping her son home from daycare. “My life is at a standstill until [my mom] decides these vaccines aren't going to kill us.”

My life is at a standstill until [my mom] decides these vaccines aren't going to kill us.

The onslaught of misinformation spread over social media is what caused Saira*, a 34-year-old from Toronto, to unsubscribe from her family’s WhatsApp group since she is the only person in her family who is vaccinated. She says that her dad has so much of a “staunch anti-vax stance” that he is now a broken record of conspiracy theories and is threatening to quit his job if they make the vaccine mandatory. Their discussions got so anxiety-inducing for Saira that she stopped having them. 
Natasha* did the same. She stopped talking to her anti-vax cousins after they called her and her sister “idiots” and “paranoid” for asking them not to visit their 70-year-old parents. One cousin is convinced that COVID-19 was made up by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. That same cousin contracted the virus which put him in a coma for a month. He and his wife and kids are still refusing to get the vaccine. “They said they have antibodies and the blood of Jesus. I couldn't make this up,” Natasha says exasperated. “I just walked in the door from a viewing for a close family friend who also refused the vaccine and died within three days of being admitted to the hospital. He said he didn't want  ‘government injections.’ We are dying and I don't know how to stop it.” Saira is just as fed up, and says there’s no reasoning with her family members who have already made up their minds. “It felt like none of these conversations were based in fact, and I can’t have a conversation with someone who is detached from reality,” she says.  
The reality is that vaccine hesitancy is tearing Black families apart. But with most of the women I spoke to, aside from the wild conspiracies and confounding misinformation, there is nuance in their family members’ decisions to abstain from getting vaccinated from COVID-19, which makes getting through to them even more difficult. We know that Black communities are wary (rightfully) of governments who have historically and systemically disenfranchised them, and of healthcare systems that have upheld racism in horrific ways, like forced sterilization and involuntary eugenics. Look no further than the story of Henrietta Lacks for proof of the history of the U.S. medical industry’s exploitation of Black bodies. Once you take all of this into consideration, you’re left not with an image of ignorant, uneducated anti-vaxxers spitting on public officials, but with people who are faced with trusting a system that has historically spat in their faces. 
“Whether it's the medical experiments on enslaved Africans, forced sterilization policies in the US, or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, throughout history, Black people have not always been granted the freedom to make autonomous decisions about their bodies,” says Tiana*, a 27-year-old from New York, whose cousins, aunts, and uncles are refusing to get vaccinated. “I think that some Black people are hesitant to trust that doctors and our government are telling the truth about the vaccines. They're fearful that they're being lied to (once again).” Fear is what’s driving her family’s decision, Tiana says, and even though they usually get together on holidays, most of her immediate family is unvaccinated so those moments of communion are now a thing of the past. 

When I do [rarely] enter these conversations, I try to do so from a place of understanding and validation, as opposed to ridicule... I think it’s really hard for people to change their minds and to say ‘I was wrong about this.’

“People of color, along with immigrants and differently-abled men and women have endured centuries of having their trust violated,” Sherita Hill Golden, vice president and chief diversity officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine, writes in resources provided to R29Unbothered by John Hopkins. “We need to give people the facts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and renew their trust toward health care in general… It’s incumbent on health care organizations and leaders to help repair and restore that relationship.” Thanks to the past actions of governments and healthcare organizations, that’s not the only relationship that needs restoration. 
Family members who were once best friends are now estranged, like Garcelle*, a 30-year-old from London, ON., and her sister (that said, she says her sister has promised to take the vaccine in order to attend her wedding next year and I try not to be jealous that my cousin didn’t make me the same promise.) Garcelle says that while she disagrees with her sister’s decision not to get the vaccine, she understands it. “I do understand her hesitancy, because as a Black woman, I’m not going to lie, I was hesitant myself. But I’ve done my research and when I made the decision to take it, I felt safe,” she says over the phone. “Also, when my sister and I went to school, I remember having a vaccine booklet. We grew up on vaccines. I don’t understand why this is so different.” 
It’s true that “vaccine passports” have long existed, especially in schools and for travel, and debates that divide families are also as old as polio. So how do we move forward? The best thing we can all do for our communities is to get vaccinated, period. But when it comes to approaching these conversations, it’s important to move with empathy and patience. 
“When I do [rarely] enter these conversations, I try to do so from a place of understanding and validation, as opposed to ridicule,” Saira says. “I think it’s really hard for people to change their minds and to say ‘I was wrong about this’ so it’s important to come at it from a place of ‘we’re all confused, and we’re all taking risks, but it’s a calculated risk.’ And then you let them know that it’s not that you’re smarter or better than them. Taking it doesn’t mean that they were dumb for not taking it, because that approach will backfire and they will just dig their heels in.” 

It’s OK to want to educate your family, but it’s also OK to tap out of frustrating conversations.

I understand how hard it is not to let the insults fly when you’re trying to have a debate with someone over science when our literal lives are on the line (I may not be talking about vaccines with my cousins but I’ve gone off in a few former friends’ IG comments), but at the end of the day, we’re still talking about our family. “Be empathetic please,” Imani pleads over email. “Fight their misinformation with facts and correct information. Teach them how to fact-check fake news, and listen. [Our family members] need our support and they’re navigating a terrifying time through fear, and their fear is valid.” 
Despite what our social media feeds may suggest, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and it is a scary time. Black Americans are among the groups experiencing the highest death tolls from the COVID-19 pandemic (including Indigenous and Pacific Islanders). During a time of so much loss and uncertainty, it’s natural to want to lean on our family members. And it’s heartbreaking when those same people we used to seek comfort in are the ones causing even more stress. It’s OK to want to educate your family, but it’s also OK to tap out of frustrating conversations. It’s OK to be pissed off at the systems that have failed us for so long, there’s no restoring faith in them. And it’s OK if the reason your family member does end up getting the vaccine is because of government mandates, not out of pure love for you and respect for the safety of society and the sanctity of science. It’s also OK if, along with everything else we’ve lost over the past 18 months, we lose some family connections if they refuse to respect us and our boundaries — at least that’s what I keep telling myself. 
There may be a few less faces around holiday dinner tables this year, and considering we’re still in a pandemic, that’s OK too. 
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series