By Onz Chery
Looking like Yoda or Shrek. Transforming into a demon climbing on walls. These are only a few of the memes circulating as potential side effects of the novel coronavirus vaccines being rolled out.
In recent weeks, many Haitian-Americans have put their own twists on these jokes, with most claiming Haitians are already inoculated since the spread of the disease has been so slow in Haiti.
Others insist, jokingly and seriously, that the only thing Haitians need is lwil maskriti, the medicinal castor oil used in potions and home remedies to alleviate an array of maladies. Still, others have shared debunked conspiracy theories about the vaccines and Black healthcare workers being among those receiving the first batches.
While the claims may draw chuckles or clapbacks on social platforms, the trend is very likely a way to muffle the fear of the unknown that vaccines come with, experts and observers say. A significant portion of Haitians and Haitian-Americans have little faith in formal healthcare or medicine developed by white people in power to begin with, they say. Further, the vaccine appears to have materialized too quickly to know about its efficacy, they say.
As a result, experts said, it is only natural for so many Haitian-Americans to question, or flat out reject, the new COVID-19 vaccines.
Villardy Alcé, a standup comedian based in Dallas is among those extremely skeptical about the vaccine. He said the type of humor proliferating is one way to deal with trauma and sadness.
“Behind every joke, there’s a truth,” said Alcé, who has not taken even a flu vaccine. “One of the best ways to share the truth is to code it in humor. You can talk about the most grotesque, the most repulsive things as long as you code it.”
However, COVID-19 remains a serious matter that has killed nearly 333,000 people in the U.S. And since health careers are a go-to for countless Haitian-Americans, a significant number of them have been on the frontline of the pandemic and been stricken, both professionally and personally. As healthcare systems nationwide follow the CDC’s recommendation to inoculate healthcare workers first, many Haitian-Americans are among those to receive the vaccines early on.
Dr. Jonas Attilus, an internal medicine resident at Boston University Medical Center, took the vaccine on Thursday but admits that not many Haitian-Americans would be motivated to follow suit. For one, those who tend to be the most suspicious of the vaccine tend to be the deeply religious or spiritual Haitian-Americans.
“There’s that religious aspect of someone injecting you, you will get the beast 666 mark or maybe lose your soul if you take the vaccine,” said Attilus, 34. “The other aspect is because some of us may not trust white people, people who are in power.”
The third aspect is Haitian-Americans may feel like the vaccine was rushed, Attilus added.
Attilus said if pastors took the vaccine, then maybe more Haitian-Americans would change their views on the vaccine.
To date, the most prominent Haitian-American to take the vaccine is a healthcare worker. And his moment has drawn both praise and criticism, both laced with humor.
“Something doesn’t sit right”
In a moment watched all over the world on Dec. 14, Dr. Yves Duroseau became the first physician to take Pfizer-BioNTechPfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. In subsequent interviews, the Haitian-American doctor has said he felt great and that one reason he took the shot so publicly is to encourage communities reluctant to take the vaccine.
“There are certain communities that have suffered disproportionately,” said Duroseau, who reportedly lost an uncle to COVID-19, in a CNN interview. “It’s very important that they also realize the need to take the vaccine.”
The vaccine is 94.1 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, according to Healthline, a health industry news outlet.
“That means a lot, it’s not easy to find something like that,” Attilus said about the percentage of effectiveness. “A lot of people put their work in it. I would like to encourage the community to get vaccinated.”
To date, more than 1 million people in the U.S. took the first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTechPfizer vaccine, which requires two doses, officials said. Fewer than 10 people have reported severe allergic reactions from the first 250,000 shots given. According to Healthline, the most common side effects reported are pain in the injection site, fatigue, headache and muscle pain.
Still, early hiccups overshadowed the fact that health workers and public figures have been receiving the vaccines. And mild as the side effects may appear, they were enough to push some Haitian-Americans further away from vaccines.
Plus, according to CNBC, if people do experience serious side effects, they’re not allowed to seek legal recourse and likely won’t receive damages from the manufacturers nor the government.
“We’re not saying that these scientists and doctors aren’t doing their absolute best to combat this virus,” Alcé said. “But something just doesn’t sit right with me.”
A checkered past for vaccines
The distrust is historical, rooted in practices that have caused harm to Black and brown people across the globe. The unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, America’s most egregious example of the healthcare system harming Black people in the name of research, is fairly known in the U.S.
Instances in other countries have affected the psyche of some people who then immigrated to the U.S., carrying that suspicion with them. In 2000 and 2001 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, 22 children contracted paralytic polio after inadequately being given the vaccine to prevent the disease.
Back in the U.S., the 2009 Pandemrix influenza vaccine increased the risk of narcolepsy for some people, according to the CDC. A 2013 vaccine for the human papillomavirus, a skin-to-skin sexually transmitted disease, might have had glass particles. And in 2017, the dengue fever vaccine appeared to worsen the disease for some of its takers, yet was approved in the U.S. with major restrictions.
“We have to acknowledge the history,” Duroseau said in the CNN interview. “But I think this is the first time that we’re having meaningful open dialogue about these issues.”
Carl, a 28-year-old construction worker in Massachusetts, is skeptical about the vaccine, but feels like the family members and friends in the health industry should take it. Carl, who prefers not to use his last name for safety concerns, disapproves of the jokes flying on social media and WhatsApp because of the seriousness of the vaccine.
“I don’t believe people should joke about the unfortunate events of others,” Carl said. “I believe that’s in bad taste, a poor taste. But you cannot stop people from expressing themselves, at the end of the day we live in the United States of America.”
Still, the vaccines that caused harm are lingering in scores of Haitian-Americans’ minds like Alcé.
“I’m proud and not proud at the same time because it took a Haitian-American to lead the way for other Black people to say ‘Yes, we can be free too.’ How fitting?” Alcé said.
Then he hurled a vaccine-related joke: “Y’all ship him lwil maskriti, please.”