With COVID vaccines finally being distributed, there seems to be an end in sight for this very long pandemic. But we are not yet over the hump. In order to achieve herd immunity and effectively end the pandemic, we need the majority of Americans on board with getting vaccinated. But a large part of the Black community distrust COVID vaccines due to the long history of medical racism in the American health system.
Considering Black communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, you would think that Blacks are anxiously waiting to receive a COVID vaccine. But that is not the case. According to a survey conducted by the COVID Collaborative, only 14% of Black Americans believe that the vaccine is safe and only 18% trust that it will be effective.
Brushing off these statistics and pointing the finger at Blacks is blatant disregard of a long history of exploitation, mistreatment and neglect of Blacks in our medical system. And if we don’t take the time to acknowledge this, we will struggle to get over this hump.
This distrust of the medical system by Black Americans is often referred to as the “Tuskegee effect.” That term comes from the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” one of the more well known examples of medical racism.
The Tuskegee study was a secret government study conducted on black sharecroppers in Alabama from 1932 to 1972. Participants were told they would receive free healthcare and treatment for “bad blood.” But the study actually observed how Syphilis affected Black men differently than white men. Researchers gave the men placebos and never got their informed consent. And when penicillin was discovered as a cure for Syphilis in 1947, none of the participants received this treatment.
There is also the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cell samples were literally stolen from her while she was being treated for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital. Those stolen cells later became known as HeLa cells and played a large role in advancing medical research and launching a multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry. Her family didn’t find out until 25 years later and has never been directly compensated.
I could go on and on about the fact that Black bodies were stolen from graveyards by “resurrectionists.” The bodies were used as cadavers in the very medical schools that Black Americans were denied access to. And there is also the abuse of eugenics laws that resulted in a disproportionate number of Black women being sterilized throughout the 20th and 21st century.
Then there is James Marion Sims, the man known as the “father of modern gynecology.” He developed surgical techniques by experimenting on enslaved women … without any form of anesthesia. And this history is reflected in the Black maternal health crisis we are experiencing today where Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Just ask tennis world champion Serena Williams how she nearly died because doctors initially ignored her complaints of pain and shortness of breath.
Which brings me to the fact that we definitely can’t forget that recent studies have shown that complaints of pain by Black patients are often dismissed or ignored in comparison to white patients. Sadly, this is reflected in the stories of many Blacks that have received treatment (or lack thereof) for COVID. That includes the recent death of Dr. Susan Moore, a Black American woman who died of COVID, after she publicly complained that she was being declined care and her pain was being ignored by medical professionals.
Most non-Black people are very far removed from these stories. It is hard to comprehend if you have never been mistreated or denied treatment for inexplicable reasons. So it is easy to believe that these things only happened to a subgroup of people so long ago. And you may also believe that people need to just move on and think about the greater good. But for many Blacks the feelings of distrust are very tangible and personal.
I was once denied medical tests because a white male doctor thought that I was seeking drugs. Another time, when I showed up alone to my very first prenatal visit, I was questioned on whether I could afford to pay for the services. Although at the time, I was fully covered by two medical insurance policies. And the Tuskegee study previously mentioned happened just two counties over from where my grandfather grew up as a sharecropper.
These are a few of the experiences I have had as an upper middle class, married Black woman with very good insurance. And I share these experiences to show that medical racism isn’t a thing of the past, and it isn’t just happening to Black Americans of lower socioeconomic status.
Plain and simple, this pandemic has resurfaced a lot of racial disparities in our healthcare system, and some Black Americans rightfully distrust the system. And ignoring this problem will just continue to stoke the belief that the medical system wants to once again use us as guinea pigs to test these vaccines.
If you are not Black, you may be wondering what does any of this have to do with you? Well, I was thinking you would be affected by the whole racial injustice and medical racism part. But the other part of this is in order to achieve herd immunity and bring this pandemic under control, we need 70% of the population to get the COVID vaccine. And that can’t happen if millions of Black folks can’t be convinced to get vaccinated.
Attitudes towards this vaccine are not going to change overnight. And in order for us to get to the other side of this pandemic it is imperative that we all work together to build trust and get the majority of our population on board with this vaccine. That is going to take a concerted effort from medical professionals, government agencies, elected officials, community organizations and the community at large. But we have to start with acknowledging our history of medical racism before we can ask Black Americans to trust COVID vaccines.
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