Vaccine misinformation targets Latinos. One woman struggles to convince her dad to get the shot

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Latinos make up less than 40% of the California population — but more than 55% of the state’s coronavirus cases. Just a quarter of all vaccines administered in the state have gone to Latinos. There’s lots of hesitancy in the community, driven partly by online and bilingual misinformation. Some of it has explicitly targeted Latinos. 

Since the start of the pandemic, investigative journalist Jean Guerrero has fought to convince her dad of the dangers of COVID-19 and the importance of getting vaccinated.

“He's an immigrant from Mexico who has some pre-existing health issues, including mental health issues that make him vulnerable to this type of disinformation,” she tells KCRW. “These disinformation peddlers are really preying on vulnerable, isolated people, but also just your average Latinos.”

She recalls the time her father sent her a video of a Tijuana doctor who claimed that drinking hot water and vitamin C killed COVID-19. 

“In that video that my dad sent me, he said that media coverage of the pandemic was ‘designed to take away your rights.’ So I was really worried about my dad. I called him and urged him to please take social distancing seriously and to wear a mask. But he had already made up his mind from watching this man's videos. And he told me that I was brainwashed.”

Guerrero references data from the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, which found that similar networks that targeted Latino communities with disinformation leading up to the 2020 election have now switched gears to spread false ideas.That includes false claims that vaccines contain microchips, cause stillbirths, or that they will change a person’s DNA. 

Guerrero notes that this could be a form of voter suppression. 

“What Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino tells me is that, in her mind, this is sort of the most morbid form of voter suppression. They're trying to further erode Latinos’ trust in government institutions, so that they will be less likely to go out and vote and to be politically empowered.”

The context behind Latino vaccine hesitancy

Guerrero points to the past when explaining why Latinos are weary of taking a COVID vaccine. Like other communities of color, she says Latinos have been subject to a history of sterilization, prompted in part by the eugenics movement. She references the sterilization of about a third of women in Puerto Rico between the 1930s and 1970s, as well as the forced sterilization of women of color in California.

“White supremacists were trying to edit out non-white people in our population. So there's this historical reality of experimentation and inhumane medical practices towards this community, which makes us predisposed to hesitate and to think, ‘Well, I feel like they might be using us to experiment this vaccine.’”

How to counter misinformation 

Guerrero says the best way to fight vaccine hesitancy is to focus on individuals who might still be on the fence about getting a shot. You can help someone book an appointment or offer them a ride to an appointment. 

She says that once someone’s made up their mind about the vaccine, it can be tough and resource intensive to change their perspective. 

“That is sort of the case with my father. … And no matter what I tell him, no matter what information I provide to him, he just dismisses it. So what the researchers encourage us to do is to focus on people who are on the fence. … Gently encourage them to do so to take care of themselves.” 

She also recommends bringing empathy to any conversation with holdouts. 

“The most important thing, which PEN America talks about in their guides for how to talk to family and friends who have been targeted, is to bring empathy. We are all vulnerable to being tricked,” Guerrero says. “Make sure that you don't approach with a sense of superiority. And to also understand the historical context, there is a reason that there is a lot of skepticism in the Latino community. So you have to bring a level of empathy when you have these conversations with your loved ones.”