Booster is a series exploring the COVID-19 vaccine, and what it means for young people — from the science behind it to how it impacts our lives. In this op-ed, LaShyra “Lash” Nolan explores how centuries of medical racism contributes to some in the Black community mistrusting the COVID vaccine.
Two weeks ago my aunt sent me a text message, “I’m scheduled to get the vaccine next week, but I’m scared. Do you have time to chat?”
Since the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, impromptu informational phone calls with family and friends have become routine for me. As a Black woman and first-generation medical student, I’ve learned to seamlessly switch between my roles as a student and the sole science communicator of my family. Between my own and my family’s experiences, I have a long list of stories that validate my community’s distrust in the medical institution. So, when my aunt said she was nervous about the vaccine, I understood her fear, but I also didn’t want her to miss her shot — just like I don’t want Black communities across the nation to miss theirs.
Data shows that 1 in 735 Black people and 1 in 595 Indigenous Peoples have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Among white people, one in 1,030 have died. Studies have also shown that nonwhite people are dying from COVID at younger ages compared to white people. Some of these are preventable deaths that have been driven by systemic racism manifested as intergenerational household status, limited access to health care, health comorbidity risk, and inadequate testing access, among others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified centuries of systemic inequity that has long existed in this country and has made clear to the nation what has always been known to Black people: There are two realities in America, and the one of Black folks often deems our lives dispensable and unworthy of protection. That, compounded by centuries of medical racism and experimentation on Black bodies, has led to a justified mistrust of the medical establishment by the Black community.
Unfortunately, today we are seeing how this dignified mistrust has resulted in alarming disparities in vaccination rates across Black communities. Despite being among the most at risk of dying from COVID, in some states White people are being vaccinated two to three times the rate of Black people.
Contrary to current media coverage, Black people do not need to harken back to the historical examples of the untreated syphilis experiment or the story of Henrietta Lacks to justify mistrust of the new vaccines. We don’t need to look further than the current climate of our society and the racism we experience every day. But a deeper dive into the historic relationship between Black people and the medical institution reveals one riddled with abuse and neglect.
Nia Johnson, lawyer, Founder and CEO of the Mazingira Bioethics Group, and doctoral candidate in health policy at Harvard, describes this relationship as an abusive one. “It’s like a divorce you can’t get out of for financial reasons or what have you. Because at the end of the day, I can’t do surgery on myself, I can’t prescribe myself something if I get very sick. We have to acknowledge that Black people have been participating in a system they don’t even really want to participate in.”
Despite the current focus on the Tuskegee Experiment, Johnson says we must acknowledge that this abusive relationship goes back to the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and continues today.