Mike Brown cuts the hair of Kendrick Furbush at The Shop Hair Spa in Hyattsville.

Barber Mike Brown carefully guides his trimmer as he fights misconceptions about COVID-19 among his African-American customers, who face an outsize risk from the virus but are less likely to get vaccinated. Kerdell Porter is a 60-year-old mailman who said he has shared his doubts about the vaccine with his barber, including the claim that the shots are a ploy to kill Black people. "I don't trust it. The first person I know who got it, she fainted," said Akeem Momoh, a Black teenager who sweeps the floor of The Shop hair spa in Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington.

Brown isn't shocked by this skepticism about vaccines, even though studies show they save lives. Like him, all his clients have heard of the Tuskegee study, in which US government scientists monitored Black men with syphilis for 40 years, but didn't give them treatment in order to observe the infection take its course. "Folks are thinking in terms of the historical issues that we've faced before. There's caution, a high level of caution, which is understandable," said Brian Ayers, a 49-year-old Black man, while having his beard trimmed. For Brown, discrimination against African Americans is the reason for their mistrust of the health system in general and immunization in particular.

'Correct info to our community'

"They won't really go to a doctor or see a doctor until their arm is about to fall off," added the fortysomething with orange sneakers, who says he cuts the hair of everyone "from judges to trashmen, thieves". African Americans, who make up just under half of Washington's population, account for some 75 percent of its deaths from COVID-19. Polls show high levels of COVID vaccine skepticism among Black people in the United States, but serious questions have also been raised about whether the initial roll-out of the shots has been equitable.

Brown has tried to make his clients' trust in him work to keep them safe from the virus. After his father's death from a long illness, he joined forces with a doctor to help prevent colon cancer and heart disease. Already something of a marriage counselor and fashion advisor for the customers in his chair, the pandemic has also made him a promoter of the vaccine and virus curbs.

Brown has statistics, data and quotes from experts ready to debunk the conspiracy theories his clients have picked up from sources like social media. Posters promoting COVID prevention are displayed on the four red walls of the shop alongside press clippings and a clock bearing the image of Barack Obama, America's first Black president.

"I take pride in relaying correct information to our community," Brown said. His efforts have not been in vain: three of his vaccine-skeptical clients have since gone to receive their shots. With a bit of fact-based persuasion and his wife's urging, even Porter has decided he will roll up his sleeve for the vaccine when his turn comes. "If they call me tomorrow I'm going to be there!," he said. - AFP