By Mana Ravanel
Image retrieved from Fortune
The first reported case of the coronavirus in the United States was in early January of last year. Almost twelve months later, Sandra Lindsay would become the first person in the nation to get the COVID-19 vaccination shot.
In less than a year, the vaccination for the virus had been created. This raised suspicions and doubt in many as vaccines usually take years to be developed. Uncertainty surrounds the vaccination, especially that of its possible long-term side effects. However, since the outbreak of COVID, uncertainty has become common in our everyday lives.
Anxiety surrounding the vaccination is entirely understandable. Those who are wary of the vaccine because of how quickly it has been developed aren’t being illogical. Considering how stark the contrast in time spent in making the covid vaccine is to that of other vaccines, such as the flu shot, it is reasonable for people to be skeptical. However, for the Black community, this is only one reason for hesitancy towards getting the vaccine. A more concerning factor plays a significant role in this hesitancy — mistrust.
The countless cases in which racism played a role in the mistreatment of Black patients have resulted in a lack of trust in the medical community.
On October 4, 1920, Henrietta Lacks died from aggressive cervical cancer. In the months leading up to her death, doctors at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland took samples of her cancerous cells while diagnosing and treating her cancer. Without her consent and knowledge, the tissue was given to a researcher who shared them widely with others in the field. These cells — HeLa cells — would be used in numerous key discoveries in cancer, immunology, and infectious disease. Recently, Lacks’s cells have been used in vaccines for the coronavirus.
At its time, the hospital in which Lacks' had been stolen was one of the few to provide medical care to Black people. Companies that were able to profit from the HeLa cells never gave money to her family. It took over 60 years for the National Institute of Health to reach an agreement with the Lacks family. This agreement stated explicitly that Lacks's genome date could only be accessible to those who are granted permission. Additionally, an acknowledgment to the family must be included in any publications that use the data. Though this is a step towards the NIH righting their wrongs, this effort is not enough. The agreement does not promise any financial compensation despite HeLa cells making millions of dollars for biotechnology and other companies. For decades, Henrietta Lacks's cells were used and profited off without the consent and knowledge of both her and her family, and still, the family has not seen a single cent that was made.
Image retrieved by NY Times
In the fall of 1932, Black men in Macon County, Alabama signed up for what they believed was a way to get special treatment for "bad blood." With the promise of free meals, health care benefits, and even free burial insurance, 600 men were lured into becoming participants of the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." The researchers of the experiment failed to properly inform the men of what the experiment would entail. Rather, they allowed the participants to believe they were being treated for syphilis. Truthfully, the suffering these men faced as a result of the disease was only observed until it would take their lives. Once they had died, researchers continued their exploitation of them by examining their bodies for any damage caused by syphilis. Even after treatment for the disease had been discovered in penicillin, the study continued without the men receiving treatment.
Medical and healthcare professionals in the nation have a long history of disrespecting, mistreating, and even violating Black people. With a continuous pattern of racial disparities, it is only natural for wariness and doubts to form about the covid vaccines.
Hesitancy to get the vaccine in the Black community is a matter that needs to be addressed.
In the U.S. alone, over 28.4 million cases have been reported. Of this large number, more than 500,000 people have died. It is crucial people do all that they can to lessen the risks of exposure as much as they can. One way this can be done is to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, African Americans have one of the lowest rates of vaccination amongst any ethnic group. According to the CDC, only 5.4% of the people who received at least one vaccine dosage during the vaccination program’s first month were Black. Black people, along with Hispanics and Native Americans, are four times more likely to be hospitalized and three times more likely to die because of COVID-19. With this in mind, the blaring need for the medical community to earn the trust of the Black community is evident.
Black Americans’ mistrust in the medical and healthcare settings is deeply rooted in the malevolent actions of professionals who have exploited, taken advantage of, and harmed people in these settings. It will take a long time for the wounds caused by the continuous physical and emotional torment of Black people by those who are meant to protect and aid them, to be healed. With racial disparities still apparent today and the lack of genuine effort to earn the trust of the Black community, this process will be so much longer.
The skepticism of the vaccines amongst the Black community is the consequence of the continuous racism practiced in healthcare settings. The only way the medical community can earn the trust of Black Americans is to demonstrate genuine efforts towards ending racism found within it and its peoples. In encouraging Black people to get the vaccine, it is also essential to ensure they can receive them. Black communities are always at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to access necessities such as good health care, safe communities, quality education, and now, even vaccinations for the coronavirus, The federal government has failed to prioritize equitable access to the vaccine in communities of color. The Black community along with other racial minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This is a result of several factors including discrimination, income and wealth gaps, and healthcare access and utilization. The only way in which to ensure that the already disproportionate death rate in these communities doesn’t continue to increase is to eradicate these barriers established by such factors.
The coronavirus itself does not discriminate. Its victims are not chosen based on the premises of race, thus the medical community and the government must put forth the effort in ensuring that Black communities don’t only feel safe in getting the vaccine but are also given the resources to be able to.
Written by writer Mana Ravanel