As we celebrate Black History Month amid the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on the Black community, we must have an honest dialogue about vaccines, the health system, and how our community has been harmed throughout medical history. And that dialogue begins with an enslaved African known as Onesimus.
In early 1700s Boston, Onesimus introduced the man who claimed ownership of him to the concept of vaccination, a practice that was common across the African continent. The wisdom he shared saved lives during the 1721 smallpox outbreak and laid the foundation for the medical advancements we rely on today, including the work of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black immunologist leading key COVID-19 vaccine developments.
But despite the many contributions to medicine by people of color, there is understandable skepticism regarding the COVID-19 vaccine that many of us have wrestled with our entire lives: Can we trust the medical community given the systemic racism and injustices in the medical field?
Language is important, so we are deliberate in saying that the onus here is not on the Black community. It was the medical community that violated the trust of Black Americans.
Much of this vaccine hesitancy is rooted in the history of exploitation of Black folks. From the infamous “Tuskegee Study,” in which Black men were intentionally infected with a deadly disease and then deprived of quality medical care, to the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancerous cells were taken and experimented on without her knowledge or consent, America’s history of medical violence is long and painful. And though these horrors are remembered as the most egregious instances of medical racism, they are hardly the only examples.
Black people face worse health outcomes, and we are constantly told about risk factors and disparities that have little to do with personal decisions and everything to do with generations of systemic racism, institutional exclusion, and neglect. The trauma resulting from medical racism has cast a long shadow on the public health community’s relationship with Black Americans, and health policies rooted in white supremacy have spurned the trust people of color place in our government and medical system.
Earlier this month, Representative Pressley introduced the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act to tackle this issue by declaring structural racism a public health crisis, awarding grants to state and local organizations combatting racism, and by educating the public on antiracist health interventions. The bill acknowledges that the government will never be able to confront racial disparities until it confronts racism.
The disparate impacts the pandemic has had on the Black community are well documented. We have experienced a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and we face significant barriers to testing. Nationwide, COVID-19 has killed Black people at more than twice the rate of white people and is now the third leading cause of death for Black Americans.
This is why the National Medical Association has monitored the government’s public health response from the start of the pandemic and formed its own expert task force to independently vet regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. The task force concluded that the vaccines are safe and effective, and they will be instrumental in reducing the death toll in communities of color.
Beyond these inequities, Black Americans have been the most hesitant to get vaccinated. Data from the University of Massachusetts Boston shows that 1 in 5 Bostonians is unlikely to get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine, with nearly half of Black residents surveyed unwilling to get vaccinated.
This skepticism — which has resulted from generations of systemic racism — is justified and is something we had to overcome when making the decision to get vaccinated ourselves. But after consulting with relatives and health care providers, we both made the decision to pursue vaccinations. The data is clear — the vaccines are safe, and, without community-wide vaccination, the disease will mutate and intensify.
While communities of color have historically been on the receiving end of medical policy violence, the medical community’s response to this pandemic is being led by Black scientists and doctors like Dr. Corbett and members of the National Medical Association. This fact alone can’t undo the harm caused by generations of medical apartheid, but it does instill an important faith in these vaccines. Just like the Black doctors and researchers behind the vaccine, we all have a role to play in keeping ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe.
Today we offer with deep responsibility the same recommendation we have given our own family members and closest loved ones: The first chance you have, get the vaccine.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley represents the Seventh District of Massachusetts. Dr. Leon McDougle is president of the National Medical Association, the professional society of Black doctors.