Armenian-American groups fight COVID disinformation

In Armenia, it is estimated that less than a quarter of residents had been vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-December, even as the country fired vaccinated tourists.

The numbers are nowhere near as striking in Glendale and Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Little Armenia, Thai Town, and Sunland-Tujunga – areas that are hubs for one of the largest populations of Armenians outside. of Armenia.

But they have fallen behind the Los Angeles County average, troubling some community leaders and doctors who fear the lingering distrust of government – resulting from genocide, upheaval and a precarious history. in other countries – made it more difficult to influence some American Armenians to get the blows.

For immigrants from the former Soviet Union, “there was no trust or credibility in the government,” Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-North Hollywood) said. Other Armenians from countries like Iran, Lebanon and Syria, he said, faced “civil wars, internal conflicts, fear of reprisals.”

All of this has caused “a lot of concern to just go along with what the government tells them,” Nazarian said.

It is not clear whether reluctance or refusal of the vaccine is more pronounced among American Armenians than any other group in LA County, as public health officials do not follow them as a group. But Nazarian drew attention to the numbers in areas like Little Armenia, where only 56.6% of eligible residents were fully immunized by mid-December, compared to 70% countywide.

In Glendale, where more than a third of residents are estimated to be of Armenian descent, the vaccination rate was 62.1%.

Vic Keossian said in parks in Glendale she heard old men playing chess repeat the same doubts that have plagued public health across the county. “They have all this distrust of the vaccine,” Keossian said.

And the false claims about the gunshots causing infertility had a special resonance in her community, she said, due to the trauma that reverberates through her story.

“Armenians just have a different connection, I think, with fertility after going through genocide,” said Keossian, who works for the Armenian Relief Society of Western USA as a program supervisor for a community equity fund. County COVID-19. “It’s something that’s really embedded in us.”

Immunization rates have been extremely low in Armenia itself. By early November, only 12% of adults there were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a presentation by the country’s health ministry. The numbers have risen dramatically since then, reaching around 32% of Armenian adults in mid-December, but have remained lower than in neighboring countries, according to statistics tracked by Our world in data.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Armenians had lower confidence levels in vaccines than most of the European region, according to a study published in the Lancet. Dr Vicken Sepilian, member of the board of directors of the Armenian American Medical Society, said that in Armenia such attitudes have been exacerbated by problems with the deployment of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

For people who rely heavily on Armenia’s news and social media, “it all reverberated through our Armenian communities here,” Sepilian said.

In the United States, “you see him among the people who have the most direct ties to Armenia,” said Armine Lulejian, clinical assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine. USC. Among American Armenians who emigrated from Armenia, “they have this backlash against anything ‘Big Brother’-ly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the government says so, it is against it.

Eric Hacopian, a political consultant for the LA candidates who currently resides in Armenia, also questioned “a feed loop of disinformation” that can be particularly powerful among immigrants from the former Soviet Union or from the United States. much of the Middle East who see little credibility in state authorities or the media.

“Social media allows everyone to stay in touch with their home country,” Hacopian said. “They will stay in touch with the good and they will stay in touch with the bad.”

Some believe that the ravages of last year’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan are also at stake. For many American Armenians, “I feel like COVID has taken a back seat because of this. that people have been through, ”said Talar Aintablian, director of operations for the human services division of the Armenian Relief Society of Western USA.

In Glendale, vaccination numbers have dropped dramatically among older people, with 75.4% were fully vaccinated by mid-December, up from 88% of seniors across LA County.

Officials in the city of Glendale said they have worked with the county to set up vaccination clinics at trusted sites, including St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church, and have recorded COVID-19 vaccine videos with doctors known to the Armenian community.

Among them is Dr. Haig Aintablian, a UCLA emergency doctor who has been vaccinated publicly and has spoken about it on TV in Armenian. The doctor said he was blunt about the suffering and death he saw from the virus.

“We need more Armenians who have seen COVID,” he said. But Armenian American residents who have suffered from the virus are sometimes afraid to speak out about the matter, he said, “because it will result in vaccine pressure.”

The Glendale Public Library also ran online trainings for people to become ‘vaccine influencers’, but only one person attended the Armenian training and disappeared in the end without asking questions, said Evelyn Aghekian. , a library assistant who led the presentation.

Aghekian said that when she sat down with Armenian-language flyers for the event outside the Glendale Galleria, some people praised the awareness, but for others, “they come, they take the paper, they look at me, shake their heads and walk away. “

“But they took the paper,” she added.

In November, Assembly member Nazarian helped organize a YouTube event featuring Armenian American doctors talking about COVID-19 vaccines. The trio of doctors countered common misinformation about injections and explained why vaccines are still recommended for people who have already been infected with COVID-19.

During the live event, some viewers accused Nazarian and the medics of being traitors. One person commented in the online chat that they were “hiding the truth from your own community”, adding an Armenian term which roughly translates to “backstabbers”.

At one point, Nazarian asked panelists to respond to a commentator’s statement on cancer-causing vaccines. Dr Jack Der-Sarkissian, family doctor at Kaiser Permanente, replied: “I don’t know where the basis for this concern would be.

He explained that cancer is a form of DNA damage and reiterated that COVID-19 vaccines do not alter the DNA of recipients. Still, Der-Sarkissian said: “I would never dismiss a concern. I think that’s the science.

Der-Sarkisian said the concerns he had heard from Armenian American patients were not drastically different from others, but he was surprised that the vaccine reluctance “seems to have united the community. in a way that I hadn’t anticipated “.

The doctor said the reaction appeared to be shaped by the recent war, which he described as a loss and an experience of perceived abandonment which “deeply touched not only the people in Armenia, but the people here in Los Angeles”.

Nazarian also pointed out the heartache and trauma of war.

“You let the world go completely silent as this tiny little country fought for itself,” he said. For a community that has waited decades for a sitting US president to recognize the Armenian genocide, this sense of international indifference “has simply lent itself to further mistrust.”

George Lousparian, a construction contractor who lives in Sunland-Tujunga, said many people in his culture are suspicious of the government about the experiences they or their families had in Turkey, Iran or under Soviet regimes. But he said his own concerns about vaccines stemmed from shifting messages from U.S. government officials.

He cited changing guidelines at the start of the pandemic on masks, as well as emerging information about declining vaccine protection and the need for booster vaccines. “With so many inconsistencies, how can I trust him? ” He asked. “My skepticism is not due to being Armenian or not. I make decisions based on the data available.

LA County public health officials said that since May, more than a dozen agencies partnering with the county have educated more than 8,300 Armenian American residents about the vaccines. The Armenian American Medical Society has partnered with Glendale and the county to provide health information at vaccination clinics outside of the Glendale Galleria.

The Armenian Relief Society of Western USA also organized vaccination clinics at its headquarters in Glendale, sent Armenian-speaking volunteers to vaccination clinics, translated public health information into Armenian, and surveyed parks and other gathering places. in Glendale postal codes with particularly low vaccination rates.

“Sometimes people are ready to hear what we have to say,” said Suzy Petrossian, project coordinator with ARS Western USA. “And other times we get a lot of ‘No we don’t want it, it’s all made up.'”

Some just say “Kuh mtatzem“- or” I’ll think about it. “Case manager Ani Tangyan lets them know that she will be there if they want help with the snapshots.

“After a month, two months, they come back,” Tangyan said, and they asked, “Where is this girl?

Times writer Hamlet Nalbandyan contributed to this report.

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