Almost as soon as the mainstream media deemed that "the unvaccinated can't be persuaded," declaring everyone who still hasn't received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine a lost cause no longer worthy of our concern, the media narrative quickly shifted its Southern fixation away from our handling of the pandemic.

The polarization and subsequent dismissal of the vaccine "debate" is yet another issue that has been falsely painted as black-and-white. It's the same tired narrative we're used to hearing: That we're to blame for the material realities that dictate our lives.

Just like any other Southern population, "the unvaccinated" are not a monolith. But it's convenient to gloss over the myriad personal and structural reasons why people you know might fall into that category. For some, this vaccine falls into a long history of medical abuse. For others, vaccination is just one in a long list of medical needs, and nowhere near the most pressing to their survival. For even more, the logistics are insurmountable—our infrastructure has failed them, or their representatives don't advocate for their care.

Yes, while some can credit their stance to loudmouthed politicized action, to lump the majority of the Southern population under that single umbrella is to ignore the true need at the root of the problems we're collectively facing.

Nationwide, 53 percent of eligible people have received their full course of vaccination against COVID-19. Those numbers drag to the 40's and 30's the further South you look—especially in rural states where hospital systems started out at a disadvantage and have been struggling to keep above water for the last 18 months. In places most affected by climate disaster, the records available to tell the story of COVID-19 rates to the rest of the nation do not accurately reflect the compounding variables of being unhoused or displaced. The language used to discuss transmission rates or levels of contagious spread per 100,000 people is largely absent from reports on recent Southern policy changes.

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What the discourse—generalized headlines, poorly-considered outreach strategies, victim-blaming par excellence—all boils down to is a failure of community care. A failure to see.

Our region has the lowest rates of vaccination and the highest rates of transmission. We can't afford not to care. We can't afford not to see. 

As hospitalizations continue to surge in the country's least-supported medical landscape, the need for compassionate conversations that do not shame victims for circumstances beyond their control has never been higher. 

The media narrative is saturated with how people feel, but what do people actually need to help beat the virus where they live, work, and survive?

We set out to figure that out in communities we've got personal connections to.

The answers might surprise you; they surprised us. Some of what we heard focuses on what's working—success stories to share and replicate—but more often, these conversations brought up other issues, daily struggles outside of the prescriptive newscycle that compound our recovery efforts in ways that cannot be captured by sweeping national declarations. They are problems that require the same care and attention as ending the climate, housing, and draconian policy crises that the national dialogue has since deemed more pressing.

The issues at the root of these problems are not new. Neither are the tactics necessary to overcome them. The end-goal of any effort to end the pandemic should be the abolishment of a system where collective care is not center, where compassion is not heard, and where people cannot trust their fellow community members to act on the collective's well-being.

Breaking Through COVID is a collection of stories focused on illuminating the ways the pandemic has realigned our communities and put sharper points on the crises the South was already facing.

We understand how wide open the door has been flung for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. We understand how deep the mistrust of the media is right now, too. Help us help each other. Tell us about the radical Southerners doing this work in your community. Especially in places without formal organizing infrastructure, how can we adapt some of their lessons in our own communities? Let us know.

"If you are mandating anything for a Black community, it's a huge mistake. It disrespects our experience in this country. The vaccine needs to be made available and convenient for people. There needs to be more information sessions and engagement of people on a community level that allows people to ask questions and come to a decision that is appropriate for them. You can't mandate the result you want for marginalized communities. It takes more time and more care. It must take everyone's personal experience into consideration."

— Zac Manuel, director of the documentary This Body

"I think they think that that same person who's gonna jab them in the arm with the vaccine is going to treat them the same way every medical provider has for the last however many years of their life. It's a trauma response. It's a response to stigma and shame and being beaten down and taught that you don't have any worth. More so than anything with people who use drugs, what I hear about the vaccine is just people not really having the time. Because nobody's making it easy for them."

— Lill Prosperino, Southern States Regional Organizer for the National Harm Reduction Coalition

"It just makes it so much harder, and it's just cruel. It essentially criminalizes people's mere existence in poverty. Now, many people feel like they have to hide. It just makes the experience of being homeless that much more challenging. On top of everything else, now you've got to find a place where no one will bother you for existing."

— Kate Moore, vice president of Strategic Planning and Partnerships for Austin ECHO

"We shouldn't have to lose millions more people to the virus while they wait for the longevity of research on the vaccine. And by having people die from the virus, we are decreasing our representation in the African American community in the nation. We have to think about the children who can't get vaccinated. It's more dangerous not to vaccinate than to vaccinate."

— Latoshia Woods