We are African American elders, and we are deeply concerned about our community’s future. When we heard that 8 out of 10 new COVID-19 cases in the District of Columbia are black people, we were shaken to the core. Even more distressing was reading that 865 African Americans have died in D.C. from the virus, compared with 111 whites although black people make up less than half of the D.C. population. These statistics make it clear why D.C. officials and health experts are warning of a black COVID-19 pandemic in the District.

It is all too well known that African Americans have gotten sick and have died sooner and more often than other groups. But the ratio has never been 8 out of 10. These statistics are truly cause for alarm.

Each of us has worked to promote the health and well-being of African Americans for over 65 years. We are not prepared to accept these numbers as our new reality. So, we looked for answers. One explanation came into focus right away — vaccination rates. In Ward 3, the percentage of fully vaccinated adults is 44% while in Ward 8, the percentage is 19%. While there may be other reasons for the 8 out of 10 disparity, one fact cannot be denied. Everyone hospitalized because of COVID-19 has not been vaccinated.

We have heard from over 100 D.C. residents who have not been vaccinated and we have heard their many reasons. As we listen, we hear a theme that rings loud and clear: “This is my personal choice.” That answer may be expected since we all make personal choices every day. But this response also conveys something else. It appears to reflect a way of thinking that is new in our people’s history and experience — a total focus on “me” instead of “we.”

Key to the survival of the black community for over 400 years in this nation has been our commitment to each other. We survived or escaped from slavery together. We built and defended our churches, our schools, and our black Wall Streets as a community. We filled the jails and gave our lives to set each other free. Under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” we have confronted systemic racism as a unified force.

Tragically, our community’s response to COVID-19 has been very different. Many of us — too many — are making personal choices about vaccination without regard to the impact on others, even our own family members. Fathers are choosing not to be vaccinated, putting their families at risk of losing their support and protector. Young people influenced by unknown social media sources are saying “no” and putting their grandparents in danger.

Fear of the unknown is often offered as the reason for refusal. But some facts are known. We know for sure that more black people, many more, are getting sick and dying from this virus. We can prove that COVID-19 can cause long-term damage to respiratory and nervous systems among some survivors. We know that large numbers of black people did not fight polio, smallpox, diphtheria, measles, and mumps vaccines. It is very unclear why there is pushback now, especially knowing that black lives are at stake. Further, data shows that we have a better chance to be hit by lightning than not surviving being vaccinated.

Over centuries, African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder as we faced threats to our survival, and still, we rose. Black lives have always mattered to us. Changing racist systems will take time, but we have the power to protect each other now if we choose to get vaccinated. We have come too far to close the door on our future.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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