By Eva Tesfaye
Efforts to fight vaccine hesitancy among Black people often miss African immigrants who have a different colonial history and experience with Western medicine, which grassroots groups are addressing.
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In the U.S., skepticism about the coronavirus vaccine can be found in all segments of the population, including African Americans. But efforts to address hesitancy among Black people often overlook African immigrants, who get much of their information from their countries of origin. NPR’s Eva Tesfaye reports on one effort to combat vaccine misinformation with Zoom calls and doctors who speak African languages.
FRANK MINJA: (Speaking Swahili). That’s wonderful. I’m just getting set up here. (Speaking Swahili).
EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: Dr. Frank Minja switches between Swahili and English as he prepares to answer questions on a Zoom call with African immigrants about the COVID vaccine.
MINJA: And I like to talk about COVID-19, especially for our community of Africans.
TESFAYE: Minja is originally from Tanzania, and the Q&A is hosted by African Family Holistic Health Organization in Portland, Ore. It’s one of a number of organizations across the country who are helping Africans in the U.S. get vaccinated. On the call, people have all kinds of questions about how to get the vaccine, how it works and whether it’s safe. Some of the questions are rooted in disinformation. This one about a racist conspiracy theory was submitted in writing and is read out by Haika Mushi, a health worker at the organization.
HAIKA MUSHI: What do you think about video of some white people talking about the plot to reduce Black race?
MINJA: I’m not going to answer that. That’s, like, again, in the realm of, like, nonsense misinformation.
TESFAYE: Minja has been paying close attention to the threads of COVID-19 disinformation coming from Africa. He says that many African immigrants do not rely on American media as trusted sources of information. Some don’t speak English well enough yet. Others are used to getting information from friends and family back home through social media platforms such as WhatsApp. While a lot of what they hear is reliable, there’s also quite a bit of misleading information that has spread through these channels, Minja says.
MINJA: And a lot of it is really about just planting the seeds of distrust. So it’s making suggestions that maybe it’s not as safe as you think.
TESFAYE: For African immigrants, the distrust is partly rooted in the memory of being exploited by Western countries, says Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor. He’s a public health expert from Nigeria.
IFEANYI NSOFOR: It’s almost like anything that you say is coming from the white man. People look at him with lots of suspicion based on that experience of colonialism.
TESFAYE: And experiences after independence, too. Over the years, global health advocates have accused multinational pharmaceutical firms of using African countries as living laboratories for clinical trials of experimental drugs. In 1996, 11 children died and dozens were left disabled in Nigeria after being given an experimental anti-meningitis drug created by Pfizer, the developer of one of the COVID vaccines.
MUSHI: Yeah, all this fear comes from a history.
TESFAYE: That’s Haika Mushi, the health worker that we heard on the Zoom call earlier. She’s also from Tanzania, and she has been helping African Family Holistic Health hold these calls since the pandemic began. When the vaccine became available, they started helping people sign up for appointments. They brought in a white doctor to talk about it, and people were still skeptical. She says that they had more success when they brought in Minja and a doctor from Zimbabwe, as well as translators speaking French, Swahili and Tigrinya.
MUSHI: It makes sense to hear from our own, right?
TESFAYE: Mushi says that she hopes the participants will then spread accurate information about the vaccine to friends and family back in Africa.
Eva Tesfaye, NPR News.
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