Barber Battles Conspiracy Theories, Urges Clients to Get COVID-19 Vaccine

Mike Brown, 49

Title: Barber-stylist and community health care worker

Location: Hyattsville, Maryland

In April, Brown became a certified community health care worker after receiving training from the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Brown is partcipating in “Shots at the Shop,” a Biden administration initiative involving 1,000 Black-owned barber shops and beauty salons nationwide. He encourages patrons of The Shop Spa, the barbershop where he works, to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As of June 28, among 42 states reporting such data, fewer than half of Black and Hispanic people have received at least one COVID-19 shot, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Moreover, the vaccination rate for Blacks is less than 50% in 39 of the 42 states reporting the data, accoding to KFF.

As told to Ruben Castaneda, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in convincing some of your patrons to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The biggest challenge is the conspiracy theories. We had a lot of people in the beginning who were just looking for information about whether to take the shot. A lot of these people did get the vaccine. Now we’re down to those people who are saying “no.” It’s not just “no,” it’s “hell no.” It’s definitely been an uphill climb trying to convince them.

When we had a vaccine clinic at the shop on May 17, we had about 35 people show up. That was a small chip off the “hell no” wall, but a chip nonetheless.

[See: Fear, Courage, Grit: Meet More Than 50 ‘Hospital Heroes’ in Pictures.]

It’s been very difficult to convince them to protect their lives and those of people close to them by taking the vaccine. Social injustice, racial injustice in the judicial system, the inadequate public education system, and the lack of adequate health care in the community are all factors. The system has failed the community over the years. From their perspective, how can you trust a system that’s treated you badly for so long? Now all of a sudden, the system wants to help me?

The Tuskegee Experiment is the main one they talk about. The U.S. government enrolled 600 Black men in Alabama and monitored the nearly 400 who had latent syphilis without providing them the cure. (About 128 men died of syphilis or related complicatons, others went insane or blind.) It was a very unfortunate time. Our people were used for an experiment and then denied treatment. The people affected by Tuskegee weren’t allowed to get the cure. Now they’re giving people the vaccine for COVID and some people don’t want it.

It’s the younger clientele saying “no.” It’s the people between ages 25 and 32 we have to convince. That’s the margin right there. The older ones have generally been vaccinated. Some of the younger ones say they’re waiting, they need more answers. Some hang on to conspiracy theories.

Some people get real militant; this is a real emotional issue for them. When you have conversations, some of them get riled up. You have to remain humble — their body is their temple, they have a right to their feelings. I’m not trying to make them do anything, I just want to enlighten them with the information: If you don’t get vaccinated, this might happen.

A lot of their aunts, uncles and other family members have underlying health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes. I let them know: If you catch COVID and give it to them, they could get up out of here real quick. I try every angle to talk to people.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

It’s hard to say where they get their information from. They come from different walks of life. They don’t trust the government. They say “cancer has been around forever and there’s no cure, but they come up with a vaccine in six months? I’m not buying it.” And they’re stuck right there.

That’s why we call it the “hell no wall.” They’re not just saying “no,” they’re saying “hell no.”

I try to get to their why. Why are you saying that? None have given me a scientific answer. I’ve heard some clients say it’s bigger than the government. Some have said the ‘powers-that-be’ are trying to stop the reproduction of the Black man. I say, ‘Well, then they’re trying to get the white man, the Chinese man, every man. The shot is for everyone. I don’t understand your logic.’ Some say they’re just not ready.

Others say the government’s trying to put a chip in you. I tell them they don’t need to put a chip in you, a chip’s in your phone, they can track you if they wanted to using your phone.

[See: Ways to Boost Your Immune System.]

They know COVID is real. I’ve had customers who contracted COVID and beat it, and still don’t want to be vaccinated. I asked what was it like. They said it was like a flu they’d never had before; they couldn’t walk, couldn’t smell, couldn’t taste. I had one customer who had it, but he still wouldn’t get the vaccine. He believes in holistic healing.

You have to keep fighting. You have to be optimistic and hope the information you provide doesn’t fall on deaf ears. You just have to keep pushing the information and hope it will sink into their mind and heart.

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