In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, just as racial data on COVID-19 started to become available, the United States had to confront an ugly truth: Black and brown Americans were becoming infected at alarmingly higher rates than their white neighbors, a reality that underscored the racial inequality that has long plagued the country’s health care system. As the crisis wore on, structural racism became all the more visible: Black and brown people are more likely to die of COVID-19, more likely to lose their jobs, and more likely to fall into poverty.
Yet despite all the warning signs that the pandemic would take its harshest toll on the most marginalized communities, states and the federal government are continuing to exacerbate these inequalities in the distribution of vaccines. Across the country, Black and brown people are underrepresented in the total number of people vaccinated. In Massachusetts, Black people, who make up 9 percent of the population and 14 percent of health care workers, account for only 3 percent of people who are fully vaccinated. Latinos account for less than 4 percent, despite constituting 12 percent of the state population and 10 percent of health care workers.
It’s not hard to look at the racial disparities in vaccinations and see the latest manifestation of the nation’s past sins. Confidence in the vaccine among Black people, for example, is very low because of the long history of racist abuse in the medical community. According to a Globe/Suffolk University poll, only 11 percent of Black people in Massachusetts said they wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible compared with 59 percent of white respondents. But the racial gap in vaccinations was not inevitable, and numbers should be seen for what they are: a scandalous failure on the part of governors who failed to adequately plan to go after the coronavirus in the hardest-hit areas.
Unfortunately, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is one of those governors. “Frankly, the state has botched the vaccination rollout,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, an antidiscrimination advocacy group in Boston. “The program is almost an afterthought when it comes to people of color and immigrants.”
Indeed, Massachusetts has failed in implementing its vaccination plan so far, especially in marginalized communities, as US Representative Ayanna Pressley expressed in a letter to the governor: “I remain gravely concerned that your administration’s vaccination and response plans continue to fall short of serving the needs of the communities most impacted.”
For his part, Baker had pledged early on that 20 percent of the vaccine supply would be reserved for communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in the second and third phases of vaccine distribution. But it’s clear that those communities needed to see that kind of prioritization sooner.
Though the state neglected to set up these sites at the start of distribution, more have cropped up in recent days, though not nearly enough. After a delay because of the recent snowstorm, the state finally opened up a vaccine clinic at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College to make the vaccine more accessible to some Black residents — over a month after vaccine distribution began. But it appears that the majority of people getting vaccinated at that site are white. This trend can be seen across the country, where wealthier white residents are more likely to get vaccinated at sites in poorer Black and brown neighborhoods.
These problems need to be addressed before the vaccine becomes more widely available, and it will require the involvement of the federal government. Pressley, along with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, urged federal health agencies to start collecting comprehensive racial vaccination data, since not all states are doing so. The federal government should heed their call; if the degree of racial disparity is unknown, then states can’t effectively create more equitable vaccine rollouts.
On the state level, it’s a matter of rebuilding trust and increasing accessibility. “It’s as simple as connecting with trusted community partners that people have been going to since the beginning of the pandemic for information on how to keep themselves and their families safe,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “Leverage the ties that these community groups have already developed over the course of the pandemic.”
If governments don’t respond to the racial vaccination gap quickly, the problem will only get worse. Marginalized communities will continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic, and the country will come out of this disaster more unequal and more unjust than it was before.