While many people are justifiably frustrated with unvaccinated people for prolonging the societal battle with COVID-19, they should stop far short of blaming vaccine reluctant Black people. Much of the vaccine hesitancy in Black communities falls at the feet of the medical establishment.
As the son of a physician, I grew up trusting medical doctors. They were my dad’s friends and colleagues. I knew them to be kind, attentive, witty and empathetic. My pediatricians all knew my father and respected him. I can honestly say the one area in my childhood that was a refuge from racism was health care. My maternal grandfather’s complaints about the racist doctors he saw at the VA and private hospitals were foreign to me. He had to be misreading these interactions, or so I thought.
As is almost always the case with privilege, I was blind to the advantage of having a well-respected physician for a father. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I experienced what many Black people do in health care settings; being rushed, ignored, dismissed, spoken over and disrespected. Each time I sat beside my mother’s bed waiting for a health care professional as she battled chronic ailments, I would pray for a doctor and nurse who treated us with professionalism. More often than not they did — but when dealing with life and death situations, more often than not is not good enough. As the adult son, I became the de facto patriarch and adviser.
There is plenty of responsibility to go around for vaccine hesitancy in African American communities. The medical community has not earned the full trust of Black Americans, irrespective of class. There is a long history of experimentation and forced sterilization of Black bodies and there are still racial problems in health care. A 2005 report from the National Academy of Medicine found that “minority persons are less likely than white persons to be given appropriate cardiac care, to receive kidney dialysis or transplants, and to receive the best treatments for stroke, cancer, and AIDS.” According to the report, “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower quality health care than white people even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of the conditions are comparable.” Another study of 400 hospitals found that Black people received treatments for heart disease that were older, less aggressive and cheaper. Blacks were also found to be discharged from the hospital earlier and “more likely to receive less desirable treatments” like limb amputations and ineffective drugs. A 2016 survey of 222 medical students and residents found that about half believed Black people feel less pain than whites due to having “thicker skin” and “less sensitive nerve endings.” Institutionalized discrimination in health care results in lower life expectancy for African Americans.
I don’t believe many medical professionals act maliciously against Black patients, but I do believe there are implicit biases that arise in a health care setting. All of this combined has resulted in Black people being apprehensive about a quickly developed COVID vaccine. When Black people can’t trust that they will get fair treatment in a hospital setting, they certainly are not going to trust getting injected with a substance in a stadium parking lot.
Credible Black voices have tried to challenge COVID vaccine hesitancy in Black communities. The National Medical Association, a professional organization of Black physicians that was formed in 1895 in response to racial discrimination in the American Medical Association, has led webinars and town hall meetings with Black social and religious organizations to answer question and concerns that people may have. Still, vaccine hesitancy persists despite the fact that Black people are nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die of the virus.
The mainstream media outside of the reactionary outlets have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of the politicization of vaccination. Physicians and public health officials have tried mightily to marshal the facts and highlight the folly of politicizing vaccination in the midst of a pandemic. Two doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine are between 42-96% effective against the delta variant. While some point to breakthrough cases, they represent less than 1% of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In fact, the rate of COVID deaths among the fully vaccinated was zero in all states but 2, with Arkansas and Michigan at 0.01%.
African Americans of all ages worry that the vaccines were developed too quickly and perhaps weren’t properly vetted. Vaccines are generally observed for 10 to 15 years before being released to the public, and these vaccines have only been studied since the summer of 2020. However, thus far, there is no scientific evidence to back the notion that the vaccines produce serious long term side effects. The most common severe side effects have been allergic reactions, specifically anaphylaxis. There were just 21 cases out of the first 1,893,360 first doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine and 71% occurred within 15 minutes of receiving the shot. It is also important to note that Black researchers and scientists, like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, played pivotal roles in the development of the vaccines.
There are of course sources of misinformation spreading about the vaccines in Black communities, but the medical establishment must begin to ask itself why a random Tik Tok influencer has more credibility with some in the Black community than well known physicians and nurses. Work needs to be done by medical educators, professional organizations and hospitals in order to root out discrimination and build trust with Black communities.
Jason Nichols is a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland and the cohost of the Daily Caller’s Vince & Jason Save The Nation.