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Op-Ed: Leading by Example on COVID Vax Won’t Sway Black Community

After months of waiting, an effective COVID-19 vaccine is finally here. Our brave medical workers, who have been on the front lines of this pandemic from the beginning, can continue their vital work of saving lives without losing their own. As the rollout continues, questions are starting to arise across the political and scientific community about the strategy.

The proposed solutions have a critical weak spot: persuading communities of color to get the vaccine when it becomes available.

For nearly 45 years, I was a reporter and anchor for WUSA9 TV, the CBS station in Washington, D.C. Much of that time was spent on the streets engaging with people in black and brown working and poor communities. Now, I follow the news of the new vaccine and how it is being communicated — or, more accurately, miscommunicated — to people in those same neighborhoods.

Mistrust of the medical status quo runs deep in these communities. Pull up a chair at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl or start a conversation at a Black Lives Matter march and you’re bound to hear suspicions surrounding the government and the establishment.

The apprehension about the medical community is real, and based in no small part on a long line of atrocities: the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the deception involved in the Henrietta Lacks cancer cell research, and the systemic racial inequalities in healthcare that still exist today.

African Americans have been lied to repeatedly. Listing out facts about the vaccine won’t foster trust in a community that has borne a disproportionate share of societal ills. Let’s not forget that many months ago, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., this community felt they were not being told the whole story of why the virus was disproportionately impacting black and brown people.

It was not just because of pre-existing medical conditions (as was first explained by doctors). It was because Black and brown people make up much of the frontline workers in grocery stores and hospitals and, in many cases, because they live in crowded homes and apartments. As a result, these groups are unable to fully quarantine from their loved ones, and on top of that, they often received worse healthcare after becoming sick, resulting in higher fatality rates.

And yet leaders appear baffled as they plead with Black and brown communities to take the coronavirus vaccine as it becomes available. The list of people adopting a “take my word for it” approach is impressive. It includes President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Barack Obama, and Anthony Fauci, MD.

This approach is well-intended, but it won’t get us where we need to be.

To fix this lack of trust, we must face the anger and frustration that these Black and brown communities are feeling head-on. I’ve repeatedly heard that the only time the Black community gets noticed is when something goes terribly wrong or when their vote is needed. This time has to be different, and the message can’t just be, “you need to take this vaccine because we say so.”

First: We have to show that we care. Healthcare professionals, health educators, and community ambassadors should be equipped to help address the challenges these communities experience. While it’s not their responsibility to immediately solve every problem, they can show them where to go to apply for food, housing, jobs, social services, and more. I carried such a list for decades while reporting; it helped me establish trust — the kind of trust that is needed to even begin the fraught conversations surrounding vaccines.

Second: As we think about who will drive the message, we must understand who the real influencers in these communities are and what influences them. I have seen first-hand that it’s the women — the mothers and grandmothers — who have the power to change their family, their block, or even an entire neighborhood. We need to find meaningful ways to reach them and establish trust.

Third: As we reach out to these influencers, we must apologize for the past indifference shown to them and explain that we are determined not to leave anybody behind going forward.

These strategies are just the start. Centuries of distrust is entrenched among the very people who most need relief from this pandemic. But as we look to the future, authenticity and ground-level engagement must be the starting point. We cannot simply tell people what we think they need to hear to be persuaded — we have to listen to communities’ concerns, understand their perspective, and develop tailored materials and messages that speak to and address their fears.

When we think about how we should start the conversation, we have to engage with community leaders — with real people in these communities, not celebrities.

Bruce Johnson is a retired 44-year broadcast journalist and current executive communication coach at 3D Communications.