How to Talk to Desi Relatives About the COVID-19 Vaccine

desi relatives

With the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out to the public, there are concerns about vaccine mistrust and misinformation. Generally speaking, there are issues with WhatsApp or Facebook chain messages circulating misinformation within our communities. Because of that, we wanted to address some ways to talk to your family, relatives, aunties and uncles about the vaccine.

[Read Related: Telemedicine in the era of Coronavirus]

Tips/Guidelines for starting a conversation

Several researchers have written about how to talk to individuals who have been exposed to misinformation or those who believe in conspiracy theories. While family members who are skeptical of the COVID vaccine may not be “conspiracy theorists” per se, the recommendations on how to start a conversation may still be relevant.

Here are some recommendations:

1) Find the right time

This might mean scheduling time in advance to chat about the vaccine and about the individual and their family’s health. It could also mean bringing the topic up after spending some quality time together when you feel connected and both parties know that they are on the same side. 

2) Keep calm

Avoid a judgmental or condescending tone. If the conversation turns into an argument, state that you want to refocus the conversation on the facts that are important to discuss and that the conversation is not meant to be an attack on one another. Spend enough time listening (without interrupting), so that the other party feels heard. If the individual you’re speaking with feels that you are shaming them or mocking them for their beliefs, that can end up reinforcing conspiracy theories or misinformation. This will also make it difficult to talk to them about anything.

3) Empathy is critical

Reiterate how much you care for them and their health and that you want to focus on keeping them safe. 

4) Be curious

Having a productive conversation requires being truly interested in how the other person came to hold their views. Are there specific people who are feeding them misinformation or are they seeking out the misinformation on their own via the Internet? If the latter, are they aware that major news sources argue the opposite points that they believe? If yes, why do they trust certain websites or blogs over major news sources?


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5) When confronting misinformation, ask questions

This will allow the individual to recognize shortcomings in their information. For example, are there any contradictions in their views? Where are they getting their facts from? How do they know if their sources are credible? Have they thought about the counter-evidence? Helping the person come to the realization that their information may not be accurate is usually much more helpful than bombarding them with facts.

6) Encourage critical thinking

Is there misinformation circulating that the individual does NOT believe?  Maybe they believe the vaccine was rushed but they don’t believe that the government is putting microchips in the vaccine. Ask why they don’t believe X but they do believe Y. Helping people examine their own beliefs is a good first step.

7) Conversations generally have to happen more than once

People don’t change their beliefs with one conversation, so it’s important to be patient.

Commonly reported concerns about COVID-19 Vaccine and ways to address them

Now let’s shift to the reasons that some South Asian folks are concerned about the vaccine, and how we might address those concerns. 

If someone is concerned that the vaccine was “rushed”

  • We have had vaccines for more than 200 years. The smallpox vaccine was invented just before 1800. Scientists understand vaccines very well — how they work and how to develop them. The COVID-19 vaccine isn’t necessarily that different from vaccines we’ve used for other diseases, so developing the hundredth vaccine we have is much easier than developing the first or second vaccine. Also, this was the first time the whole world was focused on the same thing. That’s rarely happened in the past, but every country was touched by COVID-19. Finally, part of what was “rushed” was the production and distribution elements of the vaccine — factories and distribution centers were getting prepared for the eventual vaccine before the vaccines were even approved, so that part of the chain happened more quickly, giving the impression that the vaccine was rushed. Given these three pieces of information, is it really that surprising that this vaccine was able to be developed more quickly?

If someone has concerns about the side effects of the vaccine, long or short term:

  • See above regarding how the vaccine is well understood. Also, vaccine side effects are typically very mild such as a sore arm or low fever for a day or two
  • Additionally, we know that there can be long-term side effects of COVID-19 itself, which include fatigue, memory problems, loss of smell/taste, and other effects that we won’t know until years down the road. We don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19 yet because the disease simply has not been around very long. We know much more about the vaccine and its potential effects. There’s a risk either way – either the risk from the vaccine or the risk from getting the disease itself, and it’s up to all of us to make that choice. The overwhelming majority of medical professionals have made the choice to get vaccinated, so hopefully, that is an indication in favor of the vaccine.

If someone is a victim of misinformation on WhatsApp/Facebook/etc:

  • An important thing to educate family members (especially older family members) who fall victim to misinformation is how easy it is for anyone to spread misinformation. Millennials and GenZ-ers are aware that anyone can start a blog or publish content online. Helping convey that or even show the older generation how easy it is to publish content can help them develop a healthy skepticism regarding what they read online.
  • Often, the information in WhatsApp forwards does not have sources. They often say things like “Harvard research shows XYZ” but they won’t cite a specific researcher or a study. Asking questions about how the individual knows the content of the messages is true or asking them to elaborate on the sources of the information can prompt them to examine their beliefs.
  • Finally, find common ground and acknowledge which parts of their theories may be true. Conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation often have a kernel of truth to them. Also, identify where you believe the theories veer away from fact and into fiction.

If someone wants to rely on “natural” remedies or “natural” immunity:

  • Call on relatives to recall a time in recent history where folks would have eight or ten children, and maybe six would make it to adulthood. This happened between two and four generations ago, and we can all look to our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ generation to see that. Childhood illnesses like smallpox and polio used to kill children and vaccines changed that. While natural remedies have their place and their utility, vaccines and antibiotics reduced infant mortality. We see this because infants today don’t pass away from illnesses at the rates they used to. Explaining this to our elders can hopefully provide some context on why our quality of life and healthcare is much better today because of vaccines than in our ancestors’ lives.

If someone is concerned about what’s in the vaccine:

  • Think about that scar on the upper arm of everyone born in the subcontinent- that’s from the tuberculosis vaccine. Asking elders about what they know about tuberculosis (it has a very negative reputation!) and why they or their parents were willing to get that vaccine can be a step in the direction of helping them recognize the utility and importance of vaccines. It’s also worth noting that many of the vaccines that we have already received (in addition to tuberculosis one) have the same ingredients that the COVID-19 vaccines have. 

[Read Related: Why the Fight Against Coronavirus is the Fight of all Ethnic Minorities]

Finally, we would like to share a few key points that may be worth considering when speaking with community members about the vaccine. For one thing, South Asians typically have many risk factors that make the likelihood of getting severely ill from COVID-19 higher, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. We, as a community, must recognize that we are at higher risk than several other demographic groups. Secondly, because viruses and vaccines are complex topics, it may be worth organizing community leadership (whether that involves religious leaders such as Pundits, Imams, or doctors within our communities who can communicate with our elders in their native languages) to speak about the importance of vaccines. Organizing a panel discussion via Zoom with such individuals can be helpful in addressing misinformation, as well as religion-based concerns individuals may have about the contents of the vaccine.

Additional resources:

  • Resources for information on the COVID-19 vaccine
  • An incredible resource for learning about how to talk to people who have fallen prey to misinformation
By Sofia Charania

Sofia is a medical student at Yale and currently spends her time between New Haven, CT and Manhattan. She is … Read more ›