I recently got to participate in something incredible: Through freezing rain, I pushed my grandma in a wheelchair through the half-mile line to get her COVID vaccine. After a year of being afraid of losing her, I got to witness the beginning of the end of this nightmare. I felt proud, not least because if I had not gotten the shot two weeks earlier, she may not have gotten it at all.
As soon as New Jersey’s vaccine registry went live, I registered myself, my high-risk fiancé, and my 84-year-old grandmother. I expected that my eagerness might put me ahead, but I didn’t know that volunteering at homeless shelters and food pantries would make me essential, and thus eligible to get the vaccine along with my family who had qualified due to age and risk factors.
But I wasn’t just proud to have gotten my grandmother vaccinated; I was proud as a Black woman to have been vaccinated myself. After all, my grandmother, my fiancé and I are among just a handful of Black people we personally know who have been vaccinated. I felt proud to be setting an example at a crucial time.
Unfortunately, feelings of guilt have marred my pride. When I posted a celebratory photo with my gray card, my phone blew up with messages from people demanding to know how I was able to get the vaccine so fast, how I managed to cheat the system, and could I help them cheat, too. Within a week, I had received calls and texts from friends and acquaintances comfortable enough to admit that they had managed to cut the line, assuming that I did, too. These were all white people, people with means and with low risk.
And then it got worse: I was accused of scamming and lying during registration.
Really? Are my accusers not aware of the data showing that Black Americans are being vaccinated at rates dramatically lower than white Americans? And this despite Black and brown people being affected the harshest by the pandemic, disproportionately losing our lives and our incomes.
The vaccines are there, but people who look like me sadly have a never-ending list of reasons not to trust the medical community. Historically, people of color haven’t mattered, and our bodies have been used for the advancement of white health. Those of us who believe the vaccine is less harmful than COVID have quite a hill to climb to reach others, since misinformation is rooted with some truth. And prominent community members have warned Black people not to get the vaccine; the Nation of Islam’s website has a banner photo warning “the Black community against taking the Covid-19 Vaccine with the US Government’s treacherous history of experimentation, medications and vaccines.”
This is where people like me come in. As someone who has gotten real over the last year about racism in healthcare, the truth is, it’s easier for me to reach my Black loved ones than it is for talking heads like Dr. Fauci.
The people who look like me aren’t asking me how I cut the line. Instead, they are asking how I feel. They see that I’ve gotten the vaccine, and how I still show up for life, and they can see from six feet away that I’m fine.
This information is crucial, since so many Black people work in essential jobs, and are now being asked to get the COVID vaccine or lose those stable jobs. If they don’t trust the vaccine or the experts who they can’t relate to, someone else needs to help ease their fears.
Since I’ve had my first shot, I’ve helped elderly and high-risk friends — of all races — navigate the online scheduling systems and find phone numbers. I’ve made myself available for any questions and concerns. These range from individuals with preexisting conditions being afraid the vaccine will kill them, to people with no allergies being hyper-focused on anaphylaxis, to people afraid that the government is pushing the vaccine in poor areas to make us guinea pigs.
I’ve informed disabled vets they can get their vaccine through the VA, like my fiancé. I’ve been outspoken on social media, over the phone, and in grocery store lines. I’ve seen no’s become maybes, and maybes turn to yes’s. I’ve pushed back against the convoluted misinformation that so many are inundated with.
My grandma and I are testimonies that have provided peace of mind to Black people who by occupation or level of risk, should be at the front of the line.
As of this week, I’ll be completely vaccinated against COVID. And for me, what that means is clear: There is no room to be questioning people who have gotten the vaccine – especially Black people. We are not just protecting ourselves and our loved ones, but our whole community.
Congratulate us for making a difference. Chances are, our experience may save the life of someone willing to let their fear of a vaccine outweigh their fear of catching COVID.
Tonya Russell is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who writes about mental health, wellness and culture. To see more of her work or her cute dog photos, follow her on Twitter @thetonyarussell.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.