For African Americans, can the pandemic spark a national conversation about good health?

Surviving COVID-19 would then be the beginning, not the end.

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Leslie Brown Simmons, 68, of Maywood, receives a Pfizer vaccine booster shot against COVID-19 at Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site on Jan. 18, 2022.

Leslie Brown Simmons, 68, of Maywood, receives a Pfizer vaccine booster shot against COVID-19 at Cook County’s Forest Park Community Vaccination Site on Jan. 18.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

I couldn’t believe my ears.Harrison got vaxxed!

I go way back with my dear friend, Harrison Holiday.We are not blood-related, but he calls me ‘cuz.’”He joins my family for birthday celebrations, dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That is, until he refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine.For the last year, Harrison has been a don’t-invite-him-item.

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He’s careful, but we weren’t taking any chances.

My husband and I badgered, wheedled, begged and threatened him for months.You are jeopardizing your life and health, we argued.Without it, no job.You can’t do anything, go anywhere.(Readers, you know all the rants we have drilled into those who won’t give in.)

He staunchly refused but never explained why.We were mystified.Harrison is highly intelligent.The North Sider is a professional personal trainer who has coached many people to better health, including me.

The other day, we were chatting over WhatsApp, and he casually mentioned it. He got the shot.

Why?

He was “resigned,” he replied.

Resigned to the reality that getting vaccinated was his only way out of COVID jail.“I went to a restaurant, and they asked me for my papers,” he said.“I couldn’t go to the health club and work out.”

He survived the big V.Life goes on.

But he still doesn’t believe getting vaccinated was necessary and has no plans to get a booster.

As the pandemic subsides and the world reopens, there are many who agree with Harrison:too many unknowns, too much misdirection, too much trampling on our liberties, they say.

Many of those voices, like Harrison’s, are African American.

We have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Chicago.

As of Feb. 9, 53.2% of Black Chicagoans were fully vaccinated, according to the Chicago Department of Health.Among Latinos, the rate is 64.8%, while 70% of whites and 76.1% of Asians have received two COVID-19 shots.

African Americans harbor fears of vaccines and other life-saving treatments.Those fears are rooted in the exploitation of and racial discrimination against Black people by the health care system.

We are loathe to trust “authorities” and “experts.”We have been lied to by the white power structure for hundreds of years. Why put our faith in it now?

One thing Harrison and I do agree on — no vaccine is a ticket to our good health.And African Americans have suffered mightily in the COVID scourge.

Harrison hopes the pandemic will “put the spotlight” on the state of Black health and “help folks in the Black community get stronger immunities naturally.”

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For generations, African Americans have suffered the highest rates of what the doctors call “co-morbidities.”Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity run rampant among us.

Those maladies make us more likely to die from COVID-19 and other diseases.Too many of us engage in unhealthy behaviors such as tobacco and drug use as well as gun violence.We do not exercise enough.For Black folks, obesity has become a way of life.

“Come on.We are in such bad shape, and Black folks don’t even realize it,” Harrison said. “But if we don’t realize it now, when will we?”

We need more useful information and education about healthy eating, nutrition and exercise - and the life-and-death differences they make.

For African Americans, the pandemic could spark “a national conversation about what good health looks like,” Harrison urged.

Then, surviving COVID-19 would be the beginning, not the end.

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter@mediadervish.

Send letters toletters@suntimes.com.

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