According to the New York Times “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count”, on January 2nd, the United States reported 291,384 new COVID-19 cases and 2,373 deaths. Happy New Year! Late last year, many found comfort in the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines; but many obstacles lie ahead. One of the biggest challenges healthcare workers will face in the new year is the hesitation Black people have in receiving the vaccine.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black Americans. A collection of statistics compiled by the APM Research Lab found that for every 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, 133 were Indigenous Americans, 124 were Black Americans, 90 were Pacific Islanders, 87 were Latino Americans, 76 were White Americans, and 52 were Asian American. Given that Black folks are one of the worst affected minorities, one would expect them to not only be given priority access once the vaccine becomes widely available, but also more eager to receive the vaccine.
If Black Americans account for 13% of the American population but 24% of the COVID-19 deaths, why would there be hesitation regarding vaccination? Especially if according to the New York Times, “the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95%, and the Moderna vaccine has an efficacy rate of 94.5%.” So if the vaccine’s efficacy rate is not a concern, what is it?
Black folks’ skepticism towards vaccines roots back to 1932. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” or more commonly known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, was a study the United States Public Health Service conducted beginning in 1932 until 1972. According to Tuskegee University, the 600 men who participated in the experiment were promised: “medical exams, rides to and from the clinics, meals on examination days, and free treatment for minor ailments and guarantees that provisions would be made after their deaths in terms of burial stipends paid to their survivors.” However, what the participants did not know was the U.S. Public Health Service officials never intended on providing them with what they were promised. The goal of this experiment was not to cure their Syphilis, but to observe how the disease affected Black men versus white men. When the experiment began, there was no known cure for Syphilis; however, when penicillin was found to be a treatment in 1947, the men still were left untreated.
An NPR article on vaccines skepticism cited that “According to the Pew Research Center, for example, only 43% of African Americans said they would get a vaccine if it were available to them. That’s the lowest of any racial group they surveyed.” Is this surprising? No. What has scarred generations of Black Americans was not simply that 600 Black men who had Syphilis were left untreated. Rather, it was because the entire experiment was sanctioned by the United States government. Government officials not only consent to the withholding of treatment to 600 Black men, but also faced no repercussions.
Now in 2021, Black Americans have higher rates of preexisting health conditions but continue to face a medical system sponsored by a nation that upholds structural racism on all levels. Rather than condemning Black Americans for not wanting to receive the vaccine, one should be asking why the hesitation is there in the first place. For there to be any hope of life returning to a “new normal,” America needs to reckon with its racist medical past.