Injustices within America's health-care system increase scepticism about the coronavirus vaccine among African Americans. Mike Brown is changing that, one haircut at a time
Some African-Americans are reluctant to get the covid jab. Near Washington, DC, one man is trying to change people’s minds
Covid-19 has left its mark on the Shop Spa barbers. Anti-bacterial wipes and paper towels have joined the bottles of unguents cluttering work stations. The chairs and sofa where customers normally wait have been stacked up and taped off, in accordance with coronavirus regulations. Barbers wear face masks, except when they’re ribbing each other – then they pull them down over their chins. The pandemic is serious business, sure. But sometimes you have to be able to joke around.
The Economist todayHandpicked stories, in your inboxA daily newsletter with the best of our journalismSign upA man strides in, plonks himself onto a barber chair and asks for his usual. This is Gerrell, a regular. As Mike Brown, the 48-year-old manager (
pictured above), neatens Gerrell’s fade with gold clippers, their conversation meanders towards the pandemic. The Shop Spa is in a strip mall in Hyattsville, a city just outside Washington,DC. It’s in a county where most people are black and with more cases of covid-19 than any other in the state of Maryland. But Gerrell doesn’t want the vaccine. headtopics.com
As a front-line worker delivering trays of food to patients at Walter Reed, a nearby hospital, Gerrell is close to the top of the queue to get the jab. Yet he doesn’t think he needs it. He has no health concerns, he says, unlike many covid patients who end up in hospital. Even some doctors and nurses he works with tell him they don’t want to be injected with “something that’s not proven...It’s not something like the flu shot, which’s been around for years.”
Brown, who has been cutting hair for three decades, has heard it all before. Most of his clients share Gerrell’s reluctance, he says. Though African-Americans are dying of covid at twice the rate of white Americans (six times the rate in Washington,DC
), many are unwilling to get the jab. A survey conducted by Pew last November found that only 42% wanted to be vaccinated, compared with over 60% of white Americans or Hispanic-Americans, and 83% of Asian-Americans.Many African-Americans don’t trust the medical establishment
When Brown hears claims like Gerrell’s he gently rebuts them: Brown is a vaccine evangelist. “What a lot of people don’t know about the vaccine is that it’s been under study for decades,” he says as he shaves the hair at Gerrell’s temples. “TheSARSand Ebola: all that is brothers of the corona. So this vaccine stemmed off of that.” (This is half true. Both headtopics.com
SARSand covid-19 are caused by coronaviruses, though Ebola is not.)Gerrell mulls this over. “That’s a good thing, then. That means that makes it more trustworthy.” Yet he’s still not convinced. He says he’ll wait and see.Brown used to be a vaccine sceptic too. Like many African-Americans, he was distrustful of the medical establishment, and with good reason. One notorious experiment is largely to blame: the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. In the 1930s the United States Public Health Service denied treatment to hundreds of black men who were suffering from syphilis, because scientists wanted to see what happened to the body as the disease progressed. Though many of the men developed dreadful symptoms and died, the study continued for nearly 30 years after other syphilitics started being successfully treated with penicillin. It ended only when the press exposed the abuse in 1972.
Every black child in America knows about Tuskegee: the story has been passed down the generations. It was all Brown could think about when he pondered whether or not to get the coronavirus vaccine: “My mind was like tunnel vision.” Even those who don’t know all the details of the study are aware that “something very bad was done to these men in the name of doing good,” says Dr Stephen Thomas, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, and they know that the people doing harm “had white coats on and stethoscopes”.
Contemporary injustices accentuate that wariness. African-Americans are less likely than white people to have health insurance. They are less likely to have access to high-quality medical care. And then there’s the “everyday racism that black people see with their own eyes,” says Thomas. Studies show that black people have to wait significantly longer to see a doctor than white people in an accident and emergency department. Black children with appendicitis are given less pain relief than white children.
Men might not listen to doctors, but they might listen to their barberBrown’s colleague, Wallace Wilson, lives in an overwhelmingly black and poor area in the south-east of Washington. A burly 54-year-old with a booming voice, Wilson spells out why he and so many other African-Americans don’t trust doctors. “I know people who have fallen out of bed while in the hospital and died on the floor...that's what happens in our hospitals on the regular. Or we get the brand C [generic] medicine, not the A, not the B.” headtopics.com
“So”, says Wilson, “a brother be like, you know what, man, I’m not bothering with these doctors. I’ma head to the liquor store, man, and get me a 50 [ml bottle of liquor].” Customers start laughing nervously, assuming he’s working up to a joke. He isn’t. “And one 50 turns into two 50...It makes this pain go away everyday.”
There is a huge disparity between the health of white and black people in America, the result of racism and inequality. Even controlling for socio-economic status, black people are more likely to suffer from a health condition than white people and live shorter lives: in Washington,
DC, black men die 17 years before white men do, on average. The culture of mistrust plays a part in this health gap, particularly with regard to disease prevention. Black people are less likely than white people to get the flu jab and more likely to end up in hospital with flu.
Mike knows he has to play the long game. “When you want good fruit the seed doesn’t grow overnight.”If you’re black in America, you’re also more likely to die from cancer than a person of any other race. This fact prompted Thomas and his colleagues to find a new way to encourage black people to look after their health: people may rarely see a doctor, let alone heed their advice, but they might pay attention to the person who cuts their hair. Brown was one of several barbers recruited by Thomas 11 years ago, to encourage his clients to get tested for colon cancer. “They trust you, they know what you’re about, they feel confident in talking to you,” says Brown. That comes with a responsibility, he adds, to “call it as I see it...I don't take that lightly.”
Brown shared his reservations about the covid vaccine with Thomas, who encouraged him to do his own research. After Brown read about the epidemiology of the virus and the science of the vaccine, he realised that he was “speaking loudly and wrongly”. Now he wants to pass that knowledge on to his clients.
His tactics differ depending on the person. For some it’s enough to gently ply them with facts, says Brown. With others he hardens his tone: what if you get infected without realising, pass the virus on to your grandmother and kill her? “When I put it to them like that, they start getting more quiet,” he says. Most of his clients are “real hard and defensive”. But he knows he has to play the long game. “When you want good fruit the seed doesn’t grow overnight.”
Opinion in the barbers is slowly shifting. In November, when Brown first came out in favour of the vaccine, nearly all his clients were vehemently opposed. Now, he says, many are starting to come round to the idea. They tell him: “I don’t want to be the first, but I will get in line.”
Some of the stiffest opposition comes from his own colleagues. Mario Hall, the jester of the barbers, is worried about possible side-effects. “I’m scared of my mouth being over here,” he says, contorting his face into a grotesque palsy. “I’m not gonna walk around with a Rocky face, with a Rocky look.”
Kevin Fitzhugh, a part-timer who enters the barbers to a chorus of “oh here we go” from the other men, won’t have a jab unless legally obliged to do so, he says, or if “my job is on the line”. He thinks that covid vaccines have been designed by “that top 1%, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the people who actually run the world”, to reduce the size of the global population. At first he suggests this cabal is targeting “brown people”, then revises this to “the lower class”. Why would they want to do such a thing? “The resources of the world,” he says, as if the answer were obvious. “They're already saying the planet is overpopulated.”
Some people, says Brown, are never going to change their mind about the vaccine. But he’s convinced he can influence others. One unexpected convert is Wilson. Despite his instinctive distrust of the vaccine, in December he decided that he would get it after all. The men in the barbers were arguing about the vaccine a lot at the time. During these debates Brown slowly drip-fed Wilson facts about how the jab works and explained that mass vaccinations had eradicated polio and measles. “He probably would never say that it was me [who influenced him], but I know that the seed was planted,” says Brown.
Wallace decided he will get the vaccine to protect his elderly parents. He says he’s been avoiding his parents because he is worried about infecting them, and misses seeing them. But what finally changed his mind, he says, was when he saw Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama get the jab (this hasn’t happened yet, although they’ve said they are willing to be vaccinated). “If it’s good enough for them”, he says, “it’s good enough for me.” Brown doesn’t get a mention. But he’s got the result that matters.Read more: The Economist »
lol thinking a '50' is 50 mL and not 50 oz (~1.5 L !!!)
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Moderna says its Covid vaccine has strong results in children ages 6 to 11Data from an interim study showed two 50 microgram doses of the vaccine, half the strength of the doses used in the vaccine given to adults, generated virus-neutralizing antibodies in children. Strong results alright!!! Disgusting! That's great but what about us people over 50 . My brother in law had the same shot and now is fighting for his life with covid in an area hospital. This is exactly why I won't get the shot . My brother in law took the shot and three days later got covid. Here we go again. Another AFRICAN country, SUDAN, is collapsing by USA interference. Look the trend. everywhere USA enters. Somali, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, ... AU wake-up. STOP snoring.
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