“I told her the vaccine was the only way to get back to everything she misses”: How this scientist convinced her vaccine-fearing grandma to get the jab

“I told her the vaccine was the only way to get back to everything she misses”: How this scientist convinced her vaccine-fearing grandma to get the jab

As a scientist and the science communications lead for Covid-19 Resources Canada, a grassroots organization dedicated to facilitating Canada’s pandemic response, Krishana Sankar has spent the last year spreading the gospel of science, overseeing a series of vaccine info sessions—virtual town halls where attendees ask their questions and qualified medical experts weigh in. The goal is to fight back against vaccine hesitancy, which Sankar recognizes as both worrying and understandable. And she’s speaking from personal experience: her grandmother Winnie expressed unwillingness about getting the jab. Here’s how Sankar convinced her.

Krishana: It was my grandmother’s birthday right around the time Covid hit. Normally, the whole family would get together at her apartment for a celebration. She will always cook waaaaay too much food. Roast chicken, shrimp…

Winnie: Curry, chow mein, roti.

Krishana: My family immigrated from Guyana to Canada in the ’90s. My grandmother has always been great at keeping our culinary traditions alive. Let’s just say there’s always more than enough to go around.

Winnie: Normally, if I’m hosting, I will spend a couple of days cooking. I like to have extras. People in my building will walk by and say, “Winnie, what you making in there?” And I’ll send them home with dinner. For me that has been the hardest part of the pandemic—not being able to spend time with my loved ones and friends. I live alone, so I tend to be very social in my community. Most days, before Covid, I would leave home around 10:30, take the bus and have coffee with friends—mostly people from church or from the Guyanese community. I had my shops that I liked to stop into. I’d pick up some groceries. By the time I got home it was around 3. My days were very full. And then for the last year I’ve just been stuck at home.

Krishana: My nan is very independent—very. This is a woman who was widowed at the age of 20. She raised three children. She came to a new country and made a life for herself here, and she’s overcome significant health scares. I think when Covid first hit last year, she felt, like, What is this flu?

Winnie: It’s true. It took me a bit of time to understand how serious this was. When you get to be my age, you have seen a lot of things in your life, you have known hardship. But then I started to pay more attention to the news and saw the numbers, the deaths. People returning to their forever homes without even getting to see their loved ones. I could not imagine how horrible that would be. And then I had my two granddaughters telling me, “Nan—you’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to stay home.”

Krishana: My sister is a nurse, so we were both extremely concerned about our grandmother’s safety and making sure that she understood how important it was to follow the rules. Last spring I started visiting her about three times week, to bring groceries and take her to appointments and just to keep her company—always with masks and social distancing. She was extremely frustrated that we couldn’t hug and kiss.

Winnie: This is my first granddaughter! I held her when she was a baby.

Krishana: We have always been close. My grandmother lived with us on and off when I was young. My father died before we came to Canada, so she was always very involved. Some of my earliest memories are the two of us dancing together. As I got older she was always incredibly supportive and proud of my work. Always talking to her friends about my and my sisters’ accomplishments. During a visit in January, I happened to hear her on the phone with her friend. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but at one point I heard her say something like, “Oh no, there is no way I am taking that vaccine,” and of course I was like, Whaaat?????

Winnie: I was watching the TV and listening to my friends. We were all thinking, How do we even know what is in this vaccine?

Krishana: I said to her, “Nan, I know you don’t trust the people who have created the vaccine, but you trust me and I trust them.” It wasn’t one conversation. Instead, every time I visited she would tell me what she was hearing. She was really concerned about this idea that the mRNA vaccine alters your DNA, and I would explain to her why that wasn’t the case. We talked about how we know the ingredients, and how and why they’d been able to make progress so quickly. She had the same questions that I’m usually fielding in the Q&A sessions I do.

Winnie: When heard about the DNA, that sounded terrifying. I thought, Let other people get it first. That was how a lot of my friends felt. I am not normally against vaccines. I get the flu shot every year. But this just felt so fast.

Krishana: In my work, I have moved away from the term vaccine hesitancy and started using the term vaccine confidence. That’s because I think the onus should be on our health professionals and government to provide people with information. When they rolled out the vaccine, they should have had a complementary vaccine education program. Instead people feel under-informed and they go searching for information on the internet or from friends. Don’t get me wrong: I do hear from people who think that Bill Gates is trying to implant the human population with tracking devices. But for the most part it’s just people like my grandmother who feel overwhelmed and don’t know who to trust. It can definitely be more challenging to talk to loved ones because you have a pre-existing relationship. The advice I would give anyone is that feelings need to be validated, not dismissed. Especially when you have this role reversal between younger and older generations.

Winnie: Every time I had a question, Krishana would listen. She shared all the information that I needed to know. It can be hard sometimes—she’s this little girl who I held when she was in diapers, and now she is the boss. She is telling me, “Nan, you have to do this, you have to do that.” I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I thank God every day for giving me these granddaughters who can help me and share their brilliant science minds. I think about people who don’t have this and I feel so scared for them.

Krishana: Now she says it was me and my sister who convinced her, but I think what really flipped the switch was understanding that the vaccine was the only way to get back to all the things she misses. It’s funny because she never even told me outright that she had changed her mind. Again, I was at her house and she was talking on the phone with a friend saying, “You know, I’m going to sign up—I think it’s a good thing.” I heard her explaining some of the information we had discussed to her friend, and I had to stop myself from jumping up and down and cheering. These aren’t massive mountains that need to be moved—we just have to validate people and empower them to make good decisions.

Winnie: It’s true. I thought, I can get the vaccine and then I can have my freedom. That was it. I know  some of my friends have had a lot of trouble getting the vaccine, but I was lucky. Back in early March I saw a poster up in my building. I called the number, and three days later they were there doing a pop-up clinic.

Krishana: I couldn’t believe it! I thought we were going to have to deal with waiting lists and all of that, and then my Nan calls to tell me she booked her appointment. I’m still not sure why they had the clinic there. Maybe because my grandmother’s building has a lot of residents who are seniors. Anyway, once I heard she had the appointment, I didn’t ask questions.

Winnie: The night before, I was nervous. I know it was a good decision, but I still had a lot of worry. I was up at 5 a.m. with nothing to do but pace around my living room, ready to go to my appointment an hour early, even though it was just two floors down. And then it all went fine. Actually, it was great! They had the clinic set up where we normally have the social room.

Krishana: I decided to go over, even though I couldn’t be in the room. It was a little emotional. Covid-19 has had such a devastating effect on our seniors. Being there to see my loved one cross this milestone was really special. And then, of course, I had to wait while she chatted with the nurses for 15 minutes after she was done. Like I said, she is a very social person.

Winnie: And now I’m free! I know, I know, I’m not really free—my granddaughters keep reminding me. But before I felt so trapped and now I feel like I can spread my wings. I had my vaccine two days before my birthday, and it was the greatest gift. I rode the bus a few times, I chatted with friends—outside and wearing a mask. If I don’t say that my granddaughters will come for me.

Krishana: Ha! It’s been amazing to see her so much more upbeat. I just have to keep reminding her she’s not fully vaccinated yet. I’m trying to get her to double-mask, but it’s not always easy.

Winnie: Before the latest lockdown I would sometimes leave the house without my mask. It just slipped my mind. But then I would turn back because I heard my granddaughters’ voices. They have been my guardian angels and I am so grateful. For my next birthday, we will have a celebration to make up for the others we missed.

Krishana: I can’t wait. For now I just feel very relieved. The best thing is when I hear my nan on the phone to her friends, and now she’s the one giving them all the accurate information and combatting vaccine hesitancy in her own world. It’s the grandma network being used for good!