If anyone can persuade skeptical Black people to take the coronavirus vaccine, it’s Rev. Liz Walker.
And that has become the charge of the longtime WBZ-TV anchor-turned pastor. As Governor Charlie Baker announced the state’s plans for vaccine distribution last week, he stressed the need for equity in the process. And he quickly handed off to Walker, the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and one of the members of his COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group.
It was a blunt acknowledgement of the long-simmering fear that substantial numbers of people of color — and, in particular, Black people — may be reluctant to take the vaccine. Those fears are borne, Walker said, of both historical concerns and present-day frustrations with the health care system.
Those concerns are valid. But COVID is a monster, and the vaccine is the way out.
“One of the hidden blessings of this horrible time is that we are being forced to understand a lot more history than we ever have,” Walker said. “That includes the history of all kinds of inequities, including health inequities.” (Rev. Walker and I aren’t related.)
But history isn’t the only issue. As voluminous research confirms, people of color feel routinely mistreated within major medical institutions.
“People bring their experiences of their daily lives to their sense of trust,” she said. “Trauma, just by definition, is when you don’t feel safe and you don’t trust anybody. So people have experienced this, and that is what feeds the skepticism. Add to that this horrid political time of disinformation and all kinds of polarizing debates and discourse going on, and you have the perfect storm of distrust.”
Walker said she thinks she was asked to serve on the governor’s panel because of her longstanding interest in public health issues, including trauma. She said she was able to keep equity at the forefront of its discussions.
“I have no expertise about vaccines or community health, but I could ask the questions people are asking in my church and in the neighborhood around my church.”
From her church on Warren Street, Walker has had a bird’s-eye view of the misery that COVID has already visited on her community. The virus itself and the isolation we’re all living with has created great anxiety, especially among the elderly who make up the bulk of her congregation.
“I’ve never seen such fear — there’s a great amount of fear,” Walker said. “So death, isolation, and fear. What more could you suffer from? And I’ve seen that in our community — in Roxbury, and Dorchester and Mattapan. It’s been a horror show.”
Walker said she will be calling on those who might be skeptical of vaccines to carefully weigh the risks of not taking it. Lectures, she said, will not be effective. It will be essential to meet people where they are.
“I would say to them, ‘I understand. I have a lot of trust issues too.’ But let’s slow down a minute, let’s look at the information and think about what we are risking and what’s the reward. Is the risk going to be so bad, or are there rewards that are worth the risk?”
Walker stressed that she’s not working alone — far from it. Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a vital effort in the Black community to share and distribute information, and to try to dispel fears. Activists, health care workers, and other pastors have all been working on this. Community health centers, as well, will be playing a key role in reaching the public as the vaccine rolls out.
The irony, of course, is that the communities with the greatest skepticism about the vaccine have suffered the most at the hands of the virus. The distribution of the vaccine must be a moment when equity is front and center.
And the public will have to see that commitment, and trust it. That’s a tall order, but one Walker says we, as a state, are ready to take on.
Even in a career filled with challenges, this is a fresh and urgent one.
“We’re making this road as we walk it,” Walker said.