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Every effort must be made to convince Black people of a COVID-19 vaccine’s efficacy and safety

Medical racism has left Black people skeptical about getting vaccinated. Yet ignoring it would exacerbate what’s already been a public health catastrophe in their communities.

Doctors in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment intentionally did not treat Black men for the disease so they could study the progress of symptoms. What the medical community has done to Black people festers like an untended wound that runs jagged and deep beneath the skin.NATIONAL ARCHIVES/NYT

Prostate cancer shouldn’t have killed my grandfather.

Though it’s the second most common cancer in men, it also has one of the highest survival rates. A blood test could have detected irregularities that might have prompted early treatment. Yet only when his failing health became too much to bear would he allow himself to be admitted to the hospital. To the end, his wishes were unshakable: “I don’t want nobody cuttin’ on me.”

As a Black man in America, my grandfather didn’t trust his life to those who’d taken an oath to save it.

I don’t know if he suffered a personal indignity that compelled him to resist doctors and hospitals. Perhaps all that was necessary were the many stories about the medical community’s history of grotesque mistreatment of Black people, of diseases ignored and treatment denied.


As COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer await FDA authorization, this nation’s persistent legacy of medical racism has profound implications in controlling the pandemic. In both cases and deaths, Black people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Yet according to a national study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated, only 17 percent of Black adults surveyed said they will get a vaccine. Of the 50 percent who expressed reticence, most cited safety concerns and distrust as their primary reasons.

For a vaccine against the worst public health crisis in a century to succeed, every effort must be made to convince Black people of its efficacy and, especially, its safety.

In a recent tweet, Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts stressed what must be done to shore up Black support of a vaccine. “Black Lives Matter also means: (1) Any vaccine must have efficacy for those w/ high blood pressure & diabetes (2) Priority distribution to communities hardest hit by COVID-19 (3) A strategy to combat Black Americans vaccine fears & skepticism because of the Tuskegee Experiment etc.”


Black people have earned their skepticism about the medical community.

In the notorious Tuskegee experiment, hundreds of Black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades so that doctors could track the disease’s progression. Yet medical racism began much earlier. J. Marion Sims, known as “the father of modern gynecology,” performed experiments without anesthesia on enslaved Black women. Today, some doctors and even medical students still believe that Black people are less susceptible to pain, an odious lie spread by white people in antebellum America to justify their brutal treatment of enslaved Black people.

What the medical community has done to Black people festers like an untended wound that runs jagged and deep beneath the skin. This is why the Rev. Liz Walker, pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, recently invited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, to speak with her congregation.

“I was really surprised at how many parishioners, how many people, not just in the church, but in the community, said they weren’t going to take the vaccine,” Walker told WBUR. “So I wanted to do something about that because I sincerely believe we need to take it.”

It’s also why, in 2009, then-President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama rolled up their sleeves to get the H1N1 vaccine. Said the president, “People need to understand that this vaccine is safe.”


I can imagine Obama doing this again to assure people that a COVID vaccine is safe. Yet this effort has to go beyond famous faces. To combat the readily available misinformation about the virus — such as early rumors that falsely claimed Black people were immune to the coronavirus — and the pending vaccines, there must be a multilevel effort in churches, among community activists, and from political leaders and the medical community emphasizing the need for Black people to get vaccinated.

In its vaccine trials, both Moderna and Pfizer recruited a diverse group of participants. They should also make similar efforts in getting communities of color vaccinated. Addressing Walker’s congregation via Zoom, Fauci acknowledged the history of medical racism. He also said, “Don’t deprive yourself of the advantage of an extraordinarily important advance in science by not getting vaccinated. Protect yourselves, your family, and your community.”

That, of course, is the insidious, hidden sorcery of racism. 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.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.