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Why my father changed his mind about getting a COVID-19 vaccine

theGrio’s Natasha Alford says talking with family members about COVID-19 isn’t always easy. Here’s how her family’s journey brought them closer together.

I knew the tables had turned when I picked up the phone to talk with my dad about COVID-19 last summer. I was in the same situation a lot of other Black millennials have found themselves in these days — we, the children, are suddenly in the position of coaching and coaxing our parents into listening to us.

“Please just make sure you’re wearing a mask, okay?” we beg for the tenth time in a day, as our elders tell us why the mask is annoying their face and they’re just going to go outside “right quick.”

“But do you have to go to the grocery store? Can’t they just deliver it?” we respectfully ask our moms, dads, aunties, uncles and grandparents, who may not even have a smartphone, let alone a grocery delivery app, as they run off to do some unnecessary errand.

Natasha Alford and her father (Courtesy Alford family)

Some parents really just don’t understand!

Keeping your loved ones alive during a once in a century pandemic is no joke, but especially difficult to do when your parents feel they are invincible. It turns out telling older Black folks who have seen it all that they should fear the seemingly invisible has been harder than we thought.

My dad was no exception.  As a former Army veteran who grew up in the civil rights era, he really isn’t scared of much. Even when a cancer diagnosis hit him for the second time last year, Daddy was tough as nails on the exterior. 

The pandemic forced him to undergo chemotherapy treatments all alone in a hospital room, away from my mother and anyone who could’ve been there to squeeze a hand or nod his way that things would be fine. Despite the seriousness of his illness, he appeared unbothered.

So when the COVID-19 vaccine became available, I braced myself for a round of skepticism from him.

Mr. Alford (Courtesy Alford family)

“I kind of had some reservations like a lot of African-Americans at the time because of our history,” my father said to me in a recent interview where we looked back at his journey with the vaccine.

The history that turned him off and made him question health officials included the Tuskegee experiment, where the US government lied to a group of Black men suffering from syphilis, telling them they were receiving medical treatment when it was actually being withheld.

“I came up during the 60s. As a kid, I remember watching TV and seeing people beaten with hoses and [having] dogs sicced on [them],” Dad recalls. “I understand those feelings of not trusting.”

According to the CDC, being immunocompromised made my dad especially at risk for COVID-19, but living in upstate New York, far away from the epicenter of the pandemic, it just didn’t seem real enough.

Then, after Christmas, the call came: my mother and my father had both tested positive for COVID-19.

“I thought that I did everything right,” my Dad remembers. “I thought that I wore a mask. I did everything that the media was saying. What are you supposed to do?”

I was about six months pregnant at the time and absolutely terrified at the possibility of losing both my parents. I am an only child of the highest order. I don’t know, or want to know, life on this planet without them.

Amazingly, while my father’s symptoms were mild, my mother felt the brunt of the virus and struggled with breathing, fatigue and headaches.

Although I was not yet a mother with my own child in hand, getting this news sent me fully into parenting mode. I begged them both — now that they knew for themselves that the virus was real, would they please consider getting vaccinated as soon as they recovered?

“As I thought about it and then I started seeing things that were happening in our community in terms of our people getting sick and actually passing away because of it, I realized that I had to really redirect my thinking,” my father told me.

Knowing that his first grandchild was on the way didn’t hurt as a motivator either. In fact, I made getting vaccinated a prerequisite before they could hold him in person.

“I just wanted to fight, you know what I mean? I just thought that it was more important for me to be here,” my dad says when I ask him how my son’s impending arrival impacted his thinking. “To see my grandson and hold him…It’s important for me to do everything that I possibly can do so I can be here for him.”

According to the Kellogg Family Foundation, white adults actually account for the majority of unvaccinated adults (57%), but Black people are still less likely to get vaccinated and bear the brunt of COVID-19’s devastating impact.

Medical assistant Terry Nguyen administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Caldrick Williams on Aug. 19, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Knowing that the majority of new COVID-19 cases are due to those who are unvaccinated, it felt like my responsibility, not only as a journalist but also as a citizen, to ask my father to share his journey from vaccine doubter to a believer.

“If this helps somebody, then this is worth it,” Daddy told me after I interviewed him.

For many, the desire to get vaccinated will come too late as they sit on a ventilator or are facing death alone in a hospital.

I thank God every day that my family didn’t face that reality. But as the highly contagious delta variant rages on, all of us, including children like my 5-month-old who cannot get vaccinated, are relying on others to make considerate choices for the greater good.

My Dad doesn’t judge people with doubts. He just wants them to know it’s okay to change their minds.

“There was a time when certain rights, we were told we didn’t have. You have the right to be able to take that shot so you can live. You have the right to take that shot to protect your family,” he says.

“We’re a strong people. And I think that when we look at reasoning and we look at the whole situation, we will make the right decision.”

To see the full interview with my Dad and Dr. Shamard Charles, watch the video above.

Natasha S. Alford is the VP of Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.

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