Mistrust of the COVID-19 Vaccine Among Black Americans

In March of 2020, the world was brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, we’re taking the first steps of a long road to recovery. Several vaccines are now being distributed to essential workers and high-risk individuals, and normalcy is beginning to seem more and more attainable. Once the vaccine becomes more widely available, we should be on track to achieve herd immunity, which will eventually allow life to return to normal. Unfortunately, getting everyone vaccinated may be easier said than done.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, the number of people who would need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity falls somewhere between 75 and 85% of the American population. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 39% were inclined not to get a coronavirus vaccine. The survey also found that 53% of participants who initially stated that they were inclined not to get a vaccine would still not be willing even if more information were to become available. 

There are several reasons why people may not feel comfortable taking the COVID-19 vaccine, but one of the most pressing issues is the reluctance among Black Americans to get vaccinated due to a history of medical racism in the United States. One of the most heinous examples of medical racism is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

In 1932, 600 Black men were recruited by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) to take part in a scientific study and told that they would be receiving free medical treatment for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a number of health conditions. Of these patients, 399 had syphilis, and 201 were control patients. Instead of treating them for syphilis, however, the USPHS was observing the natural progression of the disease and its damage on the human body. The participants were given placebos to ensure that they believed they were being treated. The researchers conducting the study justified this by arguing that Black people could not be convinced to seek treatment for syphilis. This is an example of scientific racism, defined by Ada McVean B.Sc. as, “a pseudoscientific practice of using science to reinforce racial biases.” 

In 1934, researchers began actively taking steps to prevent patients from receiving proper treatment. They did so using a number of methods, one of which being to provide doctors with lists of subjects and ask that they not be treated for syphilis. The study, which had originally been intended to last for only six months, went on for years. When it finally came to an end, 128 of the men involved in the study had died either of syphilis or related complications. In addition, forty of their wives had been infected, and nineteen of their children had acquired syphilis congenitally. Years later, no one has been prosecuted for their role in the study.

The Tuskegee Study was just one of many historical incidents of medical racism, and many Black Americans continue to express reluctance to partake in medical research today. As a result, they are less likely to enroll in clinical trials for vaccines currently in development. This has proven to be a major obstacle in the path toward getting people vaccinated in the United States.

Since their fears are rooted in true events, there is no simple solution to the issue. In a panel held on December 10, 2020, Kim Gallon, PhD, associate professor of history at Purdue University, emphasized the importance of building trust between Black communities and predominantly white institutions. 

“I think we all still have to talk about trust where we are asking White institutions, predominantly White institutions to trust Black doctors, Black researchers to implement the approaches that they historically and culturally know will work with Black communities, right? And that’s going to mean giving time and resources to those Black institutions, and doctors, and health care providers so they can go into Black communities and engage in strategies that are going to be really effective.”

The discussion of medical racism is especially relevant given last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a social movement dedicated to ending racially motivated violence toward Black people. The history behind Black communities’ mistrust of medical institutions highlights just how deeply ingrained racism is in modern American society. 

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