Black Americans have been the least inclined of any racial or ethnic group to say they’d get the coronavirus vaccine. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed Black, indigenous and other people of color in comparison to white members of American society. This is because of the perception of medical apartheid against the Black communities.
With Black Americans being hospitalized at rates nearly three times higher than white Americans and dying from COVID-19 at rates two times higher, one would assume that Black people would be lining up at breakneck speed to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.
But the Black community has reasons for distrust – even beyond what might be attributed to the mixed messaging of America’s COVID-19 response. And it’s not a simple or sole matter of miseducation.
Esther Jones, associate professor of English, affiliate with Africana Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies, Clark University, and a medical humanist and bioethicist, explores the history of unethical and abusive treatment Black Americans have experienced at the hands of the medical establishment. Based on past experience, Black people have many legitimate reasons to be in no hurry to get the vaccination, as published in “The Conversation.”
Medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington details some of the most egregious examples in her book “Medical Apartheid.”
There’s the now-notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the government misled Black male patients to believe they were receiving treatment for syphilis when, in fact, they were not. That study went on for a total of 40 years, continuing even after a cure for syphilis was developed in the 1940s.
Perhaps less widely known are the unethical and unjustified experiments J. Marion Sims performed on enslaved women in the 1800s U.S. that helped earn him the nickname the “father of modern gynecology.” Sims performed experimental vesicovaginal fistula surgery on enslaved women without anesthesia or even the basic standard of care typical for the time.
Sims experimented on Anarcha, a 17-year-old slave, over 30 times. His decision not to give anesthesia was based on the racist assumption that Black people experience less pain than their white peers – a belief that persists among medical professionals today.
Cases of medical malfeasance and malevolence have persisted, even after the establishment of the Nuremberg Code, a set of medical ethical principles developed after World War II and subsequent trials for crimes against humanity.
In 1951, doctors harvested cervical cancer cells from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks without her permission Researchers went on to use them to create the first immortal cell culture and subjected her descendants to ongoing study for years without informed consent.
Investigative journalist Rebecca Skloot details the cascade of ethical violations in her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Despite heightened awareness after the book’s publication, the ethical violations continued when a group of scientists mapped the HeLa genome without her family’s knowledge or consent.
When tennis star Serena Williams gave birth, she saw firsthand how Black women are disbelieved by the medical establishment. She might have died from postpartum blood clots if she hadn’t advocated for herself in the face of dismissive medical professionals.
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Black people are acutely aware of this history of racism in the medical establishment, and the ways it persists today on both an individual and a collective level. Stereotypes about Black patients, whether the result of explicit or implicit bias, continue to affect the care they receive and their medical outcomes.
Again and again, when surveyed, Black Americans report that medical providers don’t believe them, won’t prescribe necessary treatments, including pain medication, and blame them for their health problems.
And the association between racism and increased disease cases and deaths has held true during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trust-building is necessary to encourage the Black people in America to get the vaccine shots, close the COVID-19 racial health and mortality gap, and win the global battle against the pandemic.
The Biden administration might wish to put out more resources towards addressing identified trust issues with the Black American communities, as a necessary measure for achieving target herd immunity.