Facing history, stopping disinfo
Jolanta Kruszelnicka at a mobile COVID-19 testing site in lower Manhattan.
In both the Fall and Spring semesters, the Brooklyn College department of health and nutrition sciences offered a class on the COVID-19 pandemic – with input from many different instructors – to counter the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccination among undergraduates.
The faculty did not expect to learn as much as the students, but in the end, they learned a lot about how to reach out to a population, mostly of color, during a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged communities of color. Nearly 65% of Brooklyn College students identify as people of color at a school where the majority (55%) of the faculty is white.
“I came up with the idea because I saw how much misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 people were exposed to,” said Michele Greene, professor and deputy chair in the department of health and nutrition sciences at Brooklyn College. “I was concerned that our students, their families, their communities were not getting the right information.”
A TEAM EFFORT
The course involved 13 professors from health and nutrition sciences and the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. It covers topics such as the history of pandemics, infectious diseases and virology, social determinants of health and testing, tracing and vaccination. It attracted 26 students in the 2020 Fall semester and 37 this Spring.
“We did a poll in the class and found out that a lot of students, even after seven weeks into the semester, were still not willing to get the vaccine or have lots of questions about the vaccines,” said Greene.
The history of medical abuses endured by people of color in the United States is a long one. The Tuskegee experiments let Black men die untreated from syphilis for four decades until 1972. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” perfected his surgical procedures on Black women without anesthesia.
In 2020, it was revealed that numerous migrant women from Latin America in the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia received forced hysterectomies – sterilization procedures – without their knowledge.
“Students have every reason to be skeptical of the medical care system,” said Greene.
According to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at CUNY, three in five undergraduates are from households with annual incomes of less than $30,000.
The pandemic has only multiplied such stressors, showed a study published last February by CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. Nearly 55% of the students reported anxiety or depression; 49% needed mental health services; 81 respondents lost household income; and half worried about losing housing.
In the middle of such a crisis, with so much misinformation on social media, it is natural for students to question vaccination, said Jolanta Kruszelnicka, a lecturer in health and nutrition sciences who coordinates the course.
“It is understandable that when you have a new disease and scientists are not able to provide satisfactory answers to all the questions, people will try to come up with the answers by themselves,” said Kruszelnicka.
Margrethe Horlyck-Romanovsky, an assistant professor co-teaching the course, estimated that roughly 40% of the students were unwilling to be vaccinated.
“All of the fear and the hesitation, all of the conspiracy theories emerge, we know, in situations like this. So, it was important to acknowledge that this is not new,” Horlyck-Romanovsky said. “Our fear of totalitarian measures is not new, but the message to overcome it is the same.” That is, she added, building trust.
Students’ skepticism has to do with the safety of medical products rushed into development, Horlyck-Romanovsky said. Students also mistrust the medical establishment, particularly the pharmaceuticals – for-profit oligopolies now entrusted with saving millions of lives.
According to a Pew Research Center survey published this past March, 61% of Black Americans said they would definitely or probably get a Covid vaccine, which is less than the national average of 69%. The study also revealed that older Black adults are more inclined than younger adults to say they would get a vaccine.
During the course, Greene shows a clip that encourages vaccine confidence from a group called Hip Hop Public Health, founded by two notable Black Americans: Olajide Williams, chief of staff and neurology professor at Columbia University, and the hip hop artist Doug E. Fresh.
“One of the things about health information is that people are generally more trusting of individuals who look like them,” said Greene. Yet, students rightly pointed out that all the characters getting vaccinated in the clip were Black, none of them white.
“Something intended to help build trust in the students was interpreted in a different way,” said Greene. “It taught me that we have to pay even closer attention to how students learn about the pandemic.”
Horlyck-Romanovsky described her own learning with ambivalence: “I learned that what I was trained to do was really valuable, but that we have failed to prepare our society for this catastrophe,” she said. “We knew that it was not just a possibility, we knew it was going to happen at some point.”