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Gustavo Arellano, a writer for the L.A. Times, had the hardest time persuading his dad to not only take the coronavirus pandemic seriously but also to get vaccinated when the new shots were available. So when he finally got his dad vaccinated earlier this month, it felt like a victory. What can those of us who are also struggling with pandemic- and vaccine-skeptical friends and relatives learn from the way Arellano broke through to his father? To find out, I spoke with him on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Can you introduce me to your dad?
Gustavo Arellano: He and my mom, they grew up in tiny villages in the mountains of a state called Zacatecas, which is like north Mexico also but toward the central part. These are poor, poor places. My dad was the youngest of eight kids, and he was very stubborn and very macho, even as a kid.
When did you first realize how your dad was feeling about COVID? Was it back in the spring?
So, I’m coming back in from El Paso. I was on assignment for the L.A. times. And the coronavirus is basically starting to bubble up, and rapidly starts getting more serious. Now take my dad. He’s retired. All of a sudden, he can no longer go to the senior center to play pool with his friends. He’s told He cannot even hug his own grandchild or congregate with any family members. Your entire world has been flipped upside down. You’re already macho and stubborn and country to begin with. You’re not going to believe the coronavirus is a thing—you’re going to believe it’s an annoyance created specifically to antagonize you and you alone.
He didn’t think it was real. He thought it was a government conspiracy. He also said actually that we all had the coronavirus, that we all were born with it, so sometimes it flares up and sometimes it doesn’t.
Your father first started really worrying about COVID when friends and family began dying. In July, a cousin had been close with died. I can’t imagine that happening and not feeling overwhelmed by it. Is that how your dad felt, or was he trying to toughen up through it?
It affected him. I drove him up to the hospital in Northridge where his cousin had died, and when he was going to drive the car back, he wanted me to help him spray this car down. I had a mask on already. He gave me some gloves and we just wiped it down as much as possible. It’s like fight-or-flight mode.
Was that the moment he started to rethink some of his beliefs?
I would hope so. He started wearing the mask indoors after that for sure. I started noticing he had hand sanitizer in his cars. He definitely didn’t have that before. It’s not like it stopped him from going out, trying to visit people, but it was a gradual chipping away from the complete skeptic at the very beginning, going slowly throughout the year to getting a little bit more careful.
Eventually more people from the Rancho from his village started getting it. People started dying from it. So it started drawing on him that yeah, maybe this is real. But still, he has that macho streak in him. So he’s like, it might be real, but it’s not going to affect me.
If we just left it to the government, he would have never done any of this. It had to be family members who kept pushing him and also people whom he knew who kept dying—that finally convinced them that this is important.
When a vaccine became available, did your dad immediately want it?
Oh, no, of course not. He was still conspiracy minded, and even to this day. But when the vaccine starts, they’re saying it’s going to be for people over 65, and my sisters said that we’ve got to get our dad to get the vaccine. We told my dad, and that’s when he started saying, I don’t need it, they’re saying that’s going to kill you, they’re saying there’s a chip. I don’t need it. I have strong blood and a positive outlook on life and insurance.
Plus, the vaccine is a vaccine of privilege. Let’s clear about that, especially the way it’s rolling out in California. You have to do it online. For weeks, there was only English, no Spanish translation. If you’re 65 and older, and especially if you’re an immigrant, more likely than not you’re not going to be the most social media–fluent of people. So not only do you need somebody you can rely on to translate any internet stuff for you, but you also need someone who’s going to have a job that allows them to be on social media nonstop. It was the luck of the draw that my sister randomly saw a friend who told her about this Instagram post with vaccine info. So she was able to do it immediately.
I was reading about vaccine disparities in L.A., how Latino residents are so much less likely to have gotten the shot. And I wonder how your experience with your dad makes you think about that differently. The L.A. public health director has been saying, we need to send vaccine doses to smaller clinics. Is that the solution? Having been through this with your dad, do you see an easy solution that we’re just not executing?
It’s the epitome of disparities, having people download an app for information and signup. You’re assuming they have a smartphone. You’re assuming they have a cellphone to begin with and that’s the only way to do it. That’s criminal. The waits are hourslong, and not everyone is going to have transportation. Not everyone’s going to be able to take the day off from work, and especially with Latinos, so many of us have blue-collar jobs that you cannot replicate at home. There are a lot of Latinos who would want to take the vaccine, but they just can’t because it’s so hard for them to do so.
It strikes me it took you a long time to get here, like, months talking to your dad back and forth. And your family was doing so much labor to get this shot in your dad’s arm. It wasn’t just driving him there. It was hours and days beforehand.
You have to keep chipping away at it. It is our job to talk to [skeptics] with patience, with kindness, with love, while also being firm. It is not about you. It is about your family. And it’s about the very community. So get with the program.