Mississippi retiree Brenda Cheeks knows all about the COVID-19 pandemic burning through her state. She doesn’t miss the news on her television. As of Dec. 14, Mississippi reported 1,648 new confirmed cases of infection. A few days earlier, the state hit a record of 2,457 new cases, which is astounding in a rural state with such a small population. It’s doubly troubling considering the brunt of tests arise from people who both showed symptoms and needed a test. (Many asymptomatic Mississippi victims never even elect for a test, so the true size of exposure is difficult for officials to nail down.)
Not helping the situation is a middling Southern governor who refuses to commit the state to a statewide mask mandate, allegedly because of the imposition that wearing a mask represents to many of his followers. Tabloids as far away as the U.K. embarrassed Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves with photos of mask-less parties at his mansion, two days after he urged the state to avoid social gatherings.
“… [W]e’ll certainly open the mansion to no more than 10 people indoors. They’ll be required to wear a mask once indoors,” Reeves claimed a few days before clean-faced photos of revelers Drew Snyder (Division of Medicaid head) and Anne Hall Brashier (policy director) hit Twitter.
Reeves has other reasons behind his limp support for mask mandates. The governor is fighting to appeal to Trump voters, and a mask mandate is unpopular to many of those voters.
Cheeks, who is Black, shares few political views with Reeves and his coveted Trump voters, however. She has her own reasons.
“I always get sick after a vaccine, and I don’t really know what they’re putting in vaccines these days. It could be anything,” Cheeks told Lighthouse.
Feeling a little rotten after a vaccination is pretty common. The body’s immune system often causes soreness, redness, tenderness or mild fever and body aches while it dedicates chemical processes and resources to dealing with a vaccine injection. Vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system to build antibodies to a disease, but that stimulation can cause disease-like symptoms, without actually being a disease.
But for Cheeks, the issue is less about feeling unwell and more about anxiety, or even outright distrust, in vaccinations themselves. Fringe conspiracy theories about the vaccine are circulating in Mississippi’s white communities, where insular groups are feeding themselves heaping helpings of absolute nonsense. (Be sure to see this YouTube link from a November 23, 2020, Public Health and Welfare Committee wherein Mississippi Chief Medical officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has to assure grown, legally-elected men there is no “fringe” conspiracy to put microchips in the COVID-19 vaccine. The sheer intellectual recklessness cranks up at about 27:40 minutes into the video. Heads up: It might make you cry.)
Cheeks’ anxiety isn’t coming from an anti-science fringe group, however. It’s coming from U.S. history. And she can point to examples.
“What, you’ve never heard of Tuskegee?” she asks, with a raised eyebrow. “With all they’ve done, why would I trust anybody these days?”
Cheeks refers, of course, to the 1932 Public Health Service travesty involving the Tuskegee Institute. The program involved leaving 399 Black men with syphilis untreated for the purpose of seeing how the unabated disease played out in their systems. The men were not informed of the truth of the experiment. These practices, coupled with the United States’ ragged, hateful history with Black and brown people and the sheer pop culture weight of a modern pandemic leaves Cheeks and many of her senior citizen friends worried about the truth behind the upcoming vaccination.
The Rev. Jeffrey Adams, formerly of Jackson, but now a pastor at a Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, says he understands the leeriness some Black people are suffering over upcoming inoculations.
“It’s not just the Tuskegee issue. It goes even further back, like with the (smallpox) that (Europeans) put in blankets that they gave Native Americans. It’s not just that one incident with Tuskegee. There’s much more history there, and none of it’s been reckoned with.”
The notion of disease-infected blankets is captured in letters from British General Lord Jeffrey Amherst during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In one correspondence, Amherst admits to distributing smallpox blankets as a means to “extirpate this execrable (Native American) race.” Today, the general’s name proudly sits on several locations and colleges including Amherst, Massachusetts; Amherst, New Hampshire; Amherst, New York; and Amherst County, Virginia. Only recently have some of these placenames begun to even question the war crimes, genocide and germ warfare perpetrated by their namesake. So far, the Amherst College Board of Trustees has moved to consider revising the name of its mascot. <eyeroll>
Adams says this is but one example among many countless examples in a long, putrid past of abuse, adding this lack of accountability could interfere with public health in a post-COVID America. Because of understandable lingering distrust, some African Americans will have to be led to a needle through example.
“I know history has given us a very leery acceptance of vaccines and things of that nature, but at some point, at the rate people are dying, I would tell them that I plan to take the vaccine myself,” Adams said. “We’ve been praying for a cure, and there’s an old saying about the man who fell into a river and he prayed for help and God sent a log floating on the water. But the drowning man didn’t take it because he’d been expecting people in a boat.”
Some of us will have to coax our friends and relatives toward that log.