Black activists split over COVID-19 vaccine due to history of racism in medicine

Activist Brandon Patterson says he has spoken to other activists about the vaccine and the dangers of COVID-19, but that it’s like 'working against the grain'

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As Black activists continue to pour into the streets to push America to reckon with its systemic racism, they are also facing a reckoning of their own: the COVID-19 vaccine. 

While some white Americans are hesitant about the efficacy of the vaccines because of their fast-paced development, for many Black Americans the question goes deeper than simply whether or not the vaccine is effective and safe.

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A number of Black people across the country are refusing the vaccine due to the long and often violent history between the medical system and the Black community. Forty-four percent of Black adults said they would not receive a coronavirus vaccine, according to Pew Research Center.

“You can pull 10,000 different things that would show why there’s a distrust between the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the Public Health Service and African Americans,” said Gina Brown, a registered nurse and dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University in Washington.

One of the most notable reasons behind the distrust is the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted from 1932 to 1972. The experiment by the U.S. Public Health Service and CDC was intended to “record the natural history of syphilis,” according to the CDC website. But the study was conducted without the consent of the 600 Black men involved, almost all of them suffered from complications from the illness and 128 died.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC in September 2020. (Credit: Cheyanne Daniels)

“They were deceived by Public Health Service,” said Brown. “That went on for almost 40 years … that’s not even that long ago. It wasn’t until 1997 that President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States, calling the study shameful and racist.”

Now, COVID-19 has devastated the Black community disproportionately. An overwhelming number of health care disparities, such as continued discrimination by health care providers and socioeconomic inequities obstructing access to providers, means Black Americans are at a higher risk of contracting the illness and dying from it, according to Pfizer’s website.

Brandon Patterson, a 27-year-old Black activist based in West Haven, Connecticut, said that he plans on receiving the vaccine when it’s available to him, but he understands why so many of his fellow Black activists are cautious about trusting the vaccine.

Patterson said he has spoken to other activists about vaccinations and the dangers of COVID-19, but that it’s like “working against the grain.”

“I feel outnumbered by facts and how our government has responded to Black people in the past,” said Patterson. “They have a past to talk about why we are where we are with Black people being so against taking this vaccine.”

Ronald Reagan UCLA MedicalCenter Administers Its First Covid Vaccines To Hospital Staff
UCLA ER Dr. Medell Briggs-Malonson (R) closes her eyes as she gets an injection of the COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Eunice Lee at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on December 16, 2020 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images)

Los Fidel, a community organizer in nearby New Haven, Connecticut, is one of those that  Patterson can’t convince of the safety of the vaccine. Fidel’s mother, brother and father contracted COVID-19, he was hospitalized for flu-like symptoms and a close friend died of COVID-19, Fidel said, but he has never been “in fear” of the virus–even while acknowledging it can be deadly. 

“I’ve organized rallies with hundreds of people and I’ve never wore a mask,” said Fidel. “I still interact with people daily.”

Fidel is wary of the push for Black communities to be vaccinated. He points to the Tuskegee experiment specifically as his reason for distrusting the medical community’s vaccination advice to Black patients.

“I’m 29-years-old and I’ve never seen such a big push for vaccinations,” Fidel said. “I just find it fishy that they’ve been pushing so hard. I don’t see white people caring about us that much in a country with 400-plus years of not caring about us. And now for this big push that the colored community take it first … it just seems a little fishy to me.” 

A Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC in September 2020. (Credit: Cheyanne Daniels)

He believes the COVID-19 vaccine is a way for the medical community to target the Black community with government-sanctioned drugs. 

“I just feel like they found an opportunity to market this drug to us. …So now with them able to amplify COVID into being this big monstrous disease … they found a window of opportunity to push this drug,” Fidel explained.  

But Brown said the push for the vaccine comes from a need for herd immunity. Herd immunity is when enough people generate such a high rate of immunity to a disease that it becomes highly unlikely for the illness to spread. 

For Black Americans, Brown said herd immunity is vital to ensuring the health of a community more at risk of other underlying conditions that, when compounded with the effects of COVID-19, can increase their susceptibility and fatality rates.

“We’re the ones that are dying (from) COVID more than anybody else,” said Brown. “We’re the ones who have the comorbidities of diabetes and hypertension and obesity. It’s important for us to garner this herd immunity so that we can become immune to this disease process and it can stop killing us.”

Michelle Chester, DNP, director of employee health services at Northwell Health, shows the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital on December 21, 2020 in Valley Stream, New York. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)

The medical community first will have to earn the trust of the Black community – a difficult feat. Patterson and Brown both have ideas how the medical community can begin to make amends. 

First, the government should acknowledge the rocky relationship between the two communities and actively work against “the social, the socioeconomic and various components of mortality rates among African Americans,” Brown said. 

Another, more proactive, idea is to hire more Black and brown people in medical professions. 

“We love to see people of color in the medical community,” said Patterson, “because we feel they will have the experience of living a Black life and can relate those experiences toward being more inclusive toward our experiences and our health concerns.” 

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Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman, helped create the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and the power of her contribution doesn’t go unnoticed by Patterson, Brown or even Fidel. But, they add, there must be a concentrated effort to steer away from the tokenism that too often is the result of diversity and inclusion projects. 

“You have to really advocate to people that we are changing the tone of medical experience for Black people in this country. And that means a more concentrated and intense campaign than we’ve seen right now,” Patterson said.

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