Take it, they say. You must, they say. But what if you’re just not sure you should?

We strive to share insights based on diverse experiences without stigma or shame. This is a powerful voice.

It’s been a year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, but as many in the public sphere like to say, “Hope is on the way.”

That hope is in the form of three vaccines from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer-BioNTech, which were developed under Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion public-private partnership between the Defense, Health and Human Services, and State Departments together with private drug companies.

On December 11, 2020, the FDA authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use. Seven months to the day after the declaration of a deadly global pandemic.

Just as quickly as the vaccine was developed and approved, questions, speculation, and even some conspiracy theories began to spread in the public sphere regarding the how’s and why’s of the vaccine.

Those questions were included within my own social circle. While I have some friends who have been eager to get the vaccine and have done so, I’ve had others who gave it the strongest of side-eyes and said it was a “hard pass.”

I personally have listened, watched, and waited, something I’m still doing as I’m 7 months pregnant and not yet cleared for vaccination. But even if I were, I’m not sure how eager I would be to get it.

I’m looking at this vaccine the way I look at new Apple products. Let me know when the second generation is approved after you’ve worked out all the kinks, and then I’ll be more likely to roll up my sleeve and offer up my arm in the name of the “greater good.”

While my personal reluctance is more connected to the swift timeline of the vaccine development, overall hesitancy varies for a myriad of reasons.

  • Concern of what could be concealed in a vaccine
  • Fear of what could happen in the body by accepting the vaccine
    • Long-term side effects
    • Myth it would “give” one COVID-19
    • Conspiracy theory that it would alter one’s DNA
  • Historical medical experimentation on the enslaved
  • Historical government-funded testing on Blacks
  • Nonconsensual appropriation of DNA for medical research
  • Doubt the severity and reported deaths due to COVID-19 is accurate
  • Doubt the COVID-19 vaccines are effective when the flu shot changes annually

Those are just some of the bases for queries regarding the three vaccines that have been authorized for use in the United States so far. The above points have not subsided as shots have expeditiously gone into arms under the Biden administration.

As exhausted as many in the country are with the COVID-19 protocol and desire to get back to life as before, that want has not outweighed the hesitancy some feel when it comes to whether they should get the vaccine or take their chances with this latest coronavirus.

These fears that have triggered vaccine hesitancy in people across the country are directly correlated with the U.S. history of medical achievement and advancement.

It’s a history rooted in racism, white supremacy, and even deception (perceived or actualized) by the medical and pharmaceutical community in the name of increasing profits.

The above fears should not be dismissed when it comes to understanding vaccine hesitancy, especially those connected to racism and white supremacy.

Race- and ethnicity-based vaccine hesitancy

James Marion Sims‘ work, the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” the Tuskegee experiments, and the dehumanization and disembodiment of the legacy of Henrietta Lacks are only some of the valid reasons that many Black people are hesitant to get the vaccine.

Medical distrust

Sims conducted his gynecological experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia, and of course, without consent.

He subscribed to the white supremacist belief that Black women had a higher tolerance and threshold for pain and were different from white women — though anatomically the same.

After Sims perfected his experiments on enslaved women, he then treated white women with his new techniques, using anesthesia.

Government interference

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” began in 1932. It was initially supposed to last 6 months, but it went on for 40 years. The study’s goal was to “record the natural history of syphilis” and find adequate treatment programs for Black people.

The U.S. government pledged to give lifetime medical benefits to participants as well as government-funded burial services. But the Black men who participated in the study were never informed about why they were being treated nor given the option to leave the study with the advent of penicillin.

In 1972, the Tuskegee Study was condemned as “ethically unjustified.”

Also, some Hispanic Americans today are hesitant to get the vaccine because of lingering, unatoned injustices committed against tens of thousands of women who were sterilized postpartum in California, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the country throughout the 1900s as part of eugenics policies.

The women, who either didn’t speak English or weren’t fluent, were coerced into signing to allow the procedure in many hospitals during delivery of their children. Some were even told the lives of their newborns were at stake if they didn’t comply.

Elsewhere in the United States, and also without consent, hysterectomies and male sterilizations on Hispanics were being performed.

A matter of appropriation

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman born in Virginia in 1920, is now considered the “Mother of Modern Medicine,” even though she died of cervical cancer in 1951.

Her legacy lives on due to her cells’ immortal life, nicknamed “HeLa” cells, which have helped develop the polio vaccine and have been used to study salmonella, HIV, and used in other medical breakthroughs.

However, her cells’ cultivation was done without the knowledge and consent of Lacks nor her family. The impact of her contribution to medicine was largely denied and ignored for decades.

This lack of informed consent with others has, in some instances, led to irreparable harm.

Lingering stigmas

The notion that Black men and women don’t feel pain or have a higher pain threshold and therefore don’t deserve the same care in treatment continues to contribute to racialized inequities in healthcare today.

Just look at the disproportionate number of severe illnesses and deaths in Black and Brown communities from COVID-19.

As comedian, political commentator, and author DL Hughley noted during a recent Healthline town hall, the question remains, “How do you get people to trust a system that has never proven trustworthy?”

There remains a tension between some people of color and the medical community. At a time where one needs to trust the other to survive, there is reluctance and hesitancy.

Wariness of pharmaceutical companies

The American medical system is a for-profit system. That includes doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and insurance companies.

That billions of dollars were given to drug companies to develop a vaccine and they succeeded in doing so in less than a year can easily make someone — including me — skeptical about the efficacy of the vaccine and the intention of those who developed it.

“Did the companies cut corners or the approval agencies overlook side effects and rush the process, to develop a vaccine that normally would take years if not a decade, for the money? is a valid question I’ve heard circulating.

Furthermore, the most recent public health crisis that consumed the attention of the American public before we became concerned with COVID-19 was the opioid epidemic.

An epidemic fueled in large part by drug companies and zealously prescribing practitioners who all handsomely profited from addiction.

The opioid epidemic aside, the high price of medicine — including everything from insulin to EpiPens, and a reluctance to offer generic drugs due to competition and greed — continues to fuel distrust of the pharmaceutical industry among the American public.

Authors of a perspective article in the New England Journal of medicine make a telling observation.

“[As] COVID-19 vaccines are … approved by the FDA, their success in Black and other communities will depend on whether members of these communities not only trust that they are safe and effective, but also believe that the organizations offering them are trustworthy. “

The United States is known for its freedoms. To speak out, protest, and rally with no subject off-limits.

That’s why in the midst of the pandemic, we saw freedom rallies countrywide by people who refused to wear masks and didn’t believe COVID-19 was real.

The gatherings were further fueled by spurious claims from the former president that cities and states with mask mandates and quarantine protocol infringed on freedom and contributed to the economic and unemployment crisis wrought by the pandemic.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that 73% of Black people and 70% of white people planned to get the coronavirus vaccine or had done so already.

There are some variations in age groups among Hispanics regarding getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Eight in 10 Hispanic adults 50 years old or older either will “definitely” or “probably” get it, while two-thirds of Hispanics under age 50 will.

However, breaking down those numbers by demographics, the poll found that 49% of Republican men said they did not plan to get vaccinated. Only 6% of Democratic men said they wouldn’t.

The NPR poll results reflect the various faces of the country with vaccine doubt.

Varies by region, too

In high-density, heavily populated urban centers with more progressive politicians in leadership, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the adherence to COVID-19 protocol and the interest to get a COVID-19 vaccine is higher than in other areas.

That sense of civic responsibility outweighs that of states such as Texas and Mississippi. These regions have completely reopened despite the continued threat of COVID-19 and its variants, as well as despite the total population having access to vaccines.

Now, there is a marked difference between the valid fears surrounding vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories that have been perpetuated, preventing people from having the necessary and truthful information needed to make an informed decision about whether they should get a vaccine.

‘Getting the vaccine will lead to a microchip in your arm’

Late last year, a video went viral on Facebook suggesting that the vaccine would contain a microchip that allowed the federal government to track you. This is disinformation — a fabrication.

The video included compiled footage taken out of context.

One piece in the video contained an interview from the executive director of the company that makes the syringes for the vaccine. Though he does talk about a microchip, it is only about the syringe label and not the actual vaccine itself.

‘The COVID-19 vaccine will alter your DNA’

Two (Pfizer and Moderna) of the currently approved vaccines in the United States were developed from mRNA or Messenger RNA.

Instead of the COVID-19 vaccine being developed from a weakened coronavirus iteration or inactivated germ, it was developed with mRNA, which teaches the immune system how to respond and fight the virus, rather than building up immunity from exposure to the virus.

The teaching protein created by the mRNA vaccine does not affect or interact with the body’s DNA in any way. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes:

  • mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept
  • The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions

This means the only thing left in the body is the knowledge of how to protect itself from future infection.

‘Getting the COVID-19 vaccine gives you COVID-19’

This claim has traveled the globe more than a few times.

It’s one I’ve heard often, even inside my own household. This belief stems from how the flu shot is developed every year, with that vaccine being made from an inactivated strain of influenza and the nasal spray being developed from a weakened strain of the flu.

My husband, a first responder, swore he was going to be sick after getting the COVID-19 vaccine because he believed it was developed from the live virus. I insisted, repeatedly, that the vaccine was not developed in that way and that he would be fine. However, he was not.

After each dose of the vaccine, my husband experienced fever, chills, and fatigue for days. My mother, who received the vaccine because of her age, had no side effects with her first dose but experienced the same side effects as my husband after receiving her second dose.

Despite these side effects, neither my husband, my mother, nor will you contract COVID-19 from the vaccine.

These side effects and others such as an allergic reaction or the reports of Bell’s Palsy from the vaccine specifically are a sign that your body is learning and building immunity to fight future infection of COVID-19.

In the case of those who have developed Bell’s Palsy after receiving the vaccine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has noted that more investigation is needed to determine what leads to the onset of this specific side effect.

To ensure the information you’ve received about the COVID-19 vaccine is not misinformation, do your own research, starting with reputable sources such as the CDC and the NIH or objective news outlets.

As for me, I’m not considering the COVID-19 vaccine until after delivery. If it’s offered to me in the hospital once my daughter is in the world safely, perhaps I will take it then, but that depends on if it will affect my ability to breastfeed.

For now, I know my husband is safe and my mother is safe while my 6-year-old son and I continue to mask up and follow COVID-19 protocol to keep ourselves safe as well.


Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning news producer and award-winning author. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended The Florida State University where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in communication: mass media studies and honors English creative writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full-time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications including VOX, Very Smart Brothas, and Shadow and Act. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but you can always find her online at contact@newwrites.com, Facebook.com/NikeshaElise or @Nikesha_Elise on Twitter and Instagram.