Bishop Jakes is senior pastor of the Potter’s House, a 30,000-member church based in Dallas.
Like many African-Americans, I had a great deal of trepidation about the Covid-19 vaccine. But last week my wife and I completed our course of vaccinations. My experience as a pastor and leader in the black community led me to believe it was the right thing to do.
Opinion polls show that African-Americans have the greatest hesitation of any group about the Covid vaccine. These reservations are rooted in centuries of mistreatment as well as illegal and unethical experimentation by the nation’s medical establishment. In the 19th century James Marion Sims, the man regarded as the father of modern gynecology, conducted scores of experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia. The notorious “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” continued into the 1970s.
Outcomes in health care also aren’t encouraging. African-Americans have twice the infant-mortality rate of whites. African-American women are more than three times as likely as their white counterparts to die from pregnancy-related causes. The breast-cancer mortality rate is 42% higher for black women than for white women. My father died when I was only 16, thanks largely to misdiagnosed and mistreated hypertension. Disturbing news accounts of disparate treatment in American health-care facilities have emerged during the pandemic.
Unfounded rumors about an attempt to use the vaccine to wipe out the black community have gained currency among my fellow African-Americans. I understand the general mistrust, but the painful truth is that blacks need the vaccine more than anyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we are nearly three times as likely as whites to die from Covid.
As a minister, I have witnessed these deaths personally. I have buried many friends and church members. At the peak of the pandemic, I regularly received reports of two or three deaths each day. I have struggled to console and counsel their survivors, most of whom couldn’t be in the same room with their loved ones as they took their last breaths. Over the weekend, I lost an old friend and colleague to the virus. But I believe that the God who brought us through slavery, Jim Crow, the Spanish flu and lynchings can steer us through this crisis as well.
As a father, grandfather, pastor and community leader, I grasped the importance of understanding the vaccine. That meant getting the facts early on from the most qualified scientists and doctors. A panel discussion I hosted early in January with several of the nation’s leading infectious-disease experts—including Anthony Fauci, Kizzmekia Corbett and Yale medical professor Onyema Ogbuagu —provided a thorough description of the vaccine-development process. Particularly helpful were the details supplied by Dr. Corbett, a young black woman and key scientist behind the development of Moderna’s novel mRNA vaccine.
I received invaluable advice from my longtime physician, a black woman and member of my church who has herself received the vaccine. Because I believe in the multitude of counsel, I also spoke with several leading infectious-disease specialists here in the Dallas area, a metropolis that is home to many globally renowned health-care facilities.
Eventually, it came down to common sense. I am a 63-year-old black man, a little overweight and with an underlying health condition. The vaccine has been proven to diminish chances of people like me getting the virus. To date, the vaccine’s side effects have been minimal or nonexistent. It’s true that no one knows anything about potential long-term side effects. But here’s what we do know: The virus has killed more than 500,000 people in this country alone, but the vaccine has yet to kill a single person. Moreover, there is a great deal of information about lingering debilitating symptoms among those who survive the virus.
I don’t consider myself an advocate for taking the vaccine. That is a personal decision. But you shouldn’t make a critically important personal decision with no information—or poor information. In an age when the line between fact and fiction is gradually eroding, it has never been more important to keep people from being swayed by misinformation or by the innumerable falsehoods spreading throughout the internet.
Here’s my unsolicited counsel: Do your own research. Pray. Consult multiple credible sources, from your personal physician to federal agencies like the CDC. Your earnest quest for the truth could save your life—and your loved ones.