Years of Medical Abuse Make Black Americans Less Likely to Trust the Coronavirus VaccineRoundup
tags: African American history, Vaccination, COVID-19, medical racism
Dan Royles is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University and the author of To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS.
It has been almost 11 months since the first case of covid-19 was identified in the United States. In that time, more than 300,000 Americans have died from the virus, and our daily lives have changed dramatically as we try to limit its spread. Promising results from several vaccine trials and an approved vaccine gives us some hope the end is in sight, but a major problem remains: not all Americans trust these vaccines will be safe and effective.
Attitudes about coronavirus vaccines vary significantly by race, and this disparity could prove a major challenge in protecting people’s lives. Although 71 percent of Black Americans know someone who has been hospitalized or died of covid-19, a recent survey by Pew Research Center reveals only 42 percent say they would get such a vaccine if it were available today. This number is low when compared to over 60 percent of White and Hispanic adults who say they would immediately take the vaccine.
This may come as a surprise to many since Black Americans have been among the hardest hit by covid-19. Black people in the United States are 1.4 times as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to contract the disease, and 2.8 times as likely to die of it. At the beginning of the pandemic, Black Americans were also more likely to be laid off than Whites and have had a harder time finding employment as the economy slowly recovers.
But suspicion of the coronavirus vaccines among many segments of the Black population is tied to a widespread lack of trust in mainstream medicine. The root of the problem lies not in Black communities themselves, but in a medical system that has historically dehumanized them and continues to do so. The result is that the history of medical racism in the United States presents a significant barrier to anything approaching equitable care in the present and future.
This history of medical racism is often shorthanded to a single word: Tuskegee. For 40 years the United States Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, tracked the progression of untreated syphilis in poor Black men, even after effective treatments for the disease became available — an appalling ethical violation that cost Black people their lives. News coverage in 1972 drew attention to the study, and the resulting public pressure brought it to an end. But the Tuskegee study is just one of the more recent and well-known episodes in the centuries-long history of medical neglect, abuse and exploitation of Black Americans.
The exploitation of Black people in the future United States began the moment enslaved Africans first disembarked on these shores, and the medical abuse of the enslaved was inextricably linked to their bondage. Doctors plied their trade in the slave quarters of Southern plantations to protect the slaveholder’s bottom line, rather than to ensure the well-being of the enslaved, and the cures they offered were often worse than the diseases they aimed to treat. In return, they got to practice their craft on non-consenting patients with no access to legal remedies should they be harmed in the course of treatment, as many were.
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