WITH TODAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT that the United Kingdom has approved use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, the first Western country to sign off on mass use of an immunization, the crucial effort to finally rein in the pandemic has now begun. Similar approvals are expected in the coming days in the US and other elsewhere.
A critical question will be how willing people are to take a COVID-19 vaccine, since a sizable share of the population will need to get vaccinated to prevent the virus’s spread. It’s an issue that is particularly charged for one group in the US — African Americans.
Black Americans have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with much higher death rates than whites. At the same time, a long history of racist abuse at the hands of health care institutions has made blacks mistrustful of medical care — and of the coronavirus vaccine that will soon be made available.
“Black people have earned their skepticism about the medical community,” writes Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. She points, most prominently, to the notorious Tuskegee experiment begun in the early 1930s, in which black men with syphilis were left untreated by doctors who wanted to track the disease’s natural progression.
Graham brings the issue home to her own grandfather, who delayed treatment for prostate cancer that wound up killing him. “As a Black man in America, my grandfather didn’t trust his life to those who’d taken an oath to save it,” she writes.
Graham cites a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated, which found that only 17 percent of black adults said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine. Another survey released last month by the COVID Collaborative found that the take-up rate among black people would be higher, but still less than half of black respondents said they would get vaccinated.
The campaign to persuade black Americans it’s safe — and crucial — to get a coronavirus vaccine is looking to black leaders to help make the case. Presidents of two historically black colleges and universities — the leaders of Dillard and Xavier universities — publicized that they had volunteered to take part in vaccine trials, and they encouraged students, faculty, and staff at their schools to do the same.
But they faced fierce blowback from some, according to a recent commentary piece by researchers from Tuskegee University and Harvard Medical School in the New England Journal of Medicine. One comment on Xavier University’s Facebook page: “Our children are not lab rats for drug companies. I cannot believe that Xavier is participating in this. This is very disturbing given the history of drug trials in the black and brown communities.”
Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church told WBUR she was surprised at how many parishioners and members of the broader community said they would not get a vaccine when it’s available. The former Boston television news anchor got Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, to address her congregation recently via Zoom. He urged them not to “deprive” themselves of the extraordinary protection a vaccine can provide to them, their family, and their community.
“That, of course, is the insidious, hidden sorcery of racism,” writes Graham. “It deprives us, then we, out of an abundance of caution, deprive ourselves. That mistrust metastasized and killed my grandfather as surely as cancer consumed his body. When the vaccines are available, dire history and mistrust should not be allowed to kill Black people as ferociously as this unchecked pandemic.”