History has me hesitant about a vaccine

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Doctor holding a large syringe aimed at Earth
World COVID-19 vaccine image by Alexandra Koch

Anti-vaxxers high levels of hesitancy are understandable

In Massachusetts the hospitals are filling up again, like those all across the country. Many of the patients are blacks and Latinx Americans. The demographic groups disproportionately slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.

will blacks and Latinx Americans show up?

The good news is that a vaccine is just weeks away from distribution. The troubling question is, will blacks and Latinx Americans show up?

“I am not feeling this vaccine, and I’m certainly not feeling like being in the guinea pig phase,” Rev. Emmett Price shared with me on our podcast All Rev’d Up. Like many black ministers across the country, Price is not confident in telling his congregation to be the first in line for the vaccine.

Price’s skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine is not a lone voice. His reservations about the vaccine derived from a history of hyper-experimentation on black bodies, intergenerational trauma as its result, and the continued health disparities that resonate to this day.

In recognizing the high levels of hesitancy among blacks to get vaccinated among her parishioners and the community at large, Rev. Liz Walker, the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a former WBZ radio anchor, reached out to the country’s most trusted voice on the issue—Dr. Anthony Fauci. Fauci’s is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Where do we go from here?

On November 26, Walker conducted a webinar titled “Where do we go from here? Coping in the next season of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Dr. Fauci spoke to the Roxbury community. He recognized our distrust in the medical system but assured us that the speed of the vaccine does not compromise its safety nor scientific integrity. However, with concern, Fauci mentioned the lack of diversity in the clinical trials for the vaccine and wished more minorities were in them, stating “what’s safe and effected should not be only for whites.”

The presidents of Xavier University, and Dillard University, Historically Black Universities in Louisiana, had volunteered for vaccine trials with the hopes of recruiting their students as a way to bridge the chasm between the black community and its distrust with the medical system.

In addressing both students’ and their families’ fears and concerns about the trials, the Bioethics Commission stepped in. It stated: “We “cannot allow our children to be an instrument of anyone inadvertently or intentionally misdirecting and politicizing the research on COVID-19 for their political interest.” Students at both schools would have access to free COVID-19 tests and a donation worth $15 million from the lab equipment company Thermo Fisher.

However, no amount of money can assuage or erase the collective trauma of living the history of medical experimentation done on our bodies. It’s in our historical memories.

Most African Americans- young and old—cannot shake off the Tuskegee Study. The clinical study was conducted for four decades, between 1932-1972, to observe untreated syphilis on African American men under the guise they were receiving free health care. The Tuskegee Study’s deleterious effects on these men, their families, and their offspring have resulted in a lifelong hell of mental and health complications.

In 2010, Americans learned about Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer from Virginia, from The New York Times best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the HeLa cell line source, the first immortalized human cell line in medical research. Lacks’ cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine, the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus, and various cancers. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Her cells were taken without consent. To this day, the Lacks family is suing Johns Hopkins for compensation.

high levels of hesitancy are understandable

1n 2018, a statue of J. Marion Sims, called the “father of gynecology,” erected in 1890, was removed from New York’s Central Park—finally. The statue stood across from the New York Academy of Medicine. Sims perfected his revolutionary tools like the vaginal speculum, a double-bladed surgical instrument used for examining the vagina and cervix, and other gynecological surgeries on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia. “After perfecting the techniques on black enslaved women without anesthesia in America, Sims went on to offer the procedure in Europe to wealthy white women who were sedated,” USA Today reported.

Black people are not largely anti-vaxxers, but the high levels of hesitancy are understandable. To assist in shoring up confidence throughout the country to get vaccinated, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have volunteered to get theirs vaccine injections on camera.

I am asked constantly will I get the COVID-19 vaccine. I demur, conveying that I don’t know yet. My spouse is an ER physician and will get vaccinated before me. She is my canary in a coal mine.