We love our family, but sometimes taking care of them can be...challenging.
As a family physician, I see many of my patients in their late 20s and 30s trying their best to be the voice of reason in their family throughout this pandemic. Whether it's trying to slow down a younger sister insisting on going out with her friends, or pleading with parents to wear a mask, many millennials were taking on the Herculean role of steering their family toward some semblance of safety in disastrous 2020. Now, with the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine well underway, the next obstacle millennials will face is convincing family members to get it. This will prove especially difficult for many Black millennials, who will need to not only dispel myths about the vaccine, but also confront a long history of mistrust of the healthcare system in order to save the lives of their loved ones across generational lines.
There is no question that Black Americans have suffered more deeply and disproportionately than white Americans. Black people account for 18% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., dying nearly twice the rate of white people, but statistical figures don’t do justice to the lives lost. We lost parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews. We lost pillars in the Black community that supported us and advocated for racial equity. Acceptance of the vaccine has increased this past month among all racial groups, but Black Americans still have significant hesitancy, with only 42% of Black Americans inclined to get the vaccine as of November, compared with 60% of the general population.
Unlike anti-vaxxers touting unfounded conspiracy theories, the Black community has many justified reasons to be wary of the medical community. Black Americans have a storied history of being experimented on in the American healthcare system, as seen in the infamous Tuskegee Trials from 1932–1972, which withheld curative treatment for African American men infected by syphilis. We thankfully have far fewer extreme examples of experimentation today, but people of color are still subject to bias and discrimination in healthcare settings.
Most recently, Dr. Susan Moore posted a video of her having to advocate for equitable care as a Black patient suffering from COVID-19, only to pass away from the infection two weeks later. The mistrust many Black Americans have for healthcare professionals is the byproduct of multigenerational trauma that is re-lived and reinforced with each new act of discrimination.
To further complicate the matter, 2020 has also been exposed to a pandemic of misinformation. Conspiracy theories have run rampant, and social media has facilitated the rapid dissemination of myths and falsehoods that are subsequently promoted by certain celebrities and politicians. Information shared by someone who is trusted, even if the claim is largely unfounded, can have a devastating and deadly effect.
Millennials are uniquely positioned to make an impact within their families, and are gaining more trust in their immediate and extended families as they progress through adulthood, whether it be entering the workforce, starting their own families or even supporting aging parents. They also have the digital literacy to help steer family members away from blatant misinformation campaigns and guide them towards more reliable sources of information. While millennials don’t have the power to undo generations of trauma, they can start the healing process by building trust through listening and valuing their family's perspective.
As a millennial and person of color, I understand having hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine, especially given the current political climate and my family’s own negative experiences in healthcare. However, my concerns were put at ease when I was able to learn more from physicians, scientists and people I trust. I’ve developed my own approach as a family physician encouraging healthy behavior changes, and it may also help you broach the discussion of vaccines with your loved ones.
First, before stating your beliefs, let your family member share their position and explore it in an unbiased and nonjudgmental way. Having difficulty finding the words? Try mirroring their statements back at them, as it allows the person to expand on their views while also making them feel heard. You may hear fears such as, “the vaccine was rushed” or they are “worried the COVID vaccine can actually give them COVID.” No matter how rational or irrational you feel their reasoning is, it's important to respect these concerns (especially given the historical context) and show compassion to your family member who is openly sharing their fears.
After hearing your family member out, the next critical step is cementing a foundation of trust by explaining why you want them to get the COVID vaccine. Get personal and explain why you care about that individual family member and your fears of what will happen if they get COVID-19, versus just listing facts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Once you are both able to establish a common goal to protect the health and safety of your family, you can then transition the vaccine conversation into something more collaborative. Working together, identify barriers preventing them from getting the vaccine, secure information from trusted sources such as the CDC or other medical institutions, and identify what would be needed to help them overcome any remaining fears and doubts. Shifting mindsets can be difficult, so don’t feel defeated if you aren’t immediately able to find a common goal. Instead, reaffirm your commitment to their wellbeing and continue the discussion at another time.
Healthcare providers and politicians are sharing their own stories on social media to combat the stream of misinformation, but we need more people of color to lead the narrative and become another voice that the Black community can trust. Additionally, the onus of this message cannot fall solely to people of color. The media, legislators and healthcare institutions must all step up, join and help amplify our voices to make change on a national level. Millennials may be uniquely positioned to influence their families, but with our collective voices, we can heal our society.