Black vaccine skeptics raise valid concerns

On Dec. 11, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccines will first be distributed to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As vaccine manufacturers, health care providers and local governments prepare to offer vaccines to the general public, misinformation results in concerns regarding the safety of the upcoming distribution process. 

People of Color are among those who have expressed concern for the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some believe vaccine distribution aims to harm or place their communities at risk.

This is harmful misinformation that will inevitably place these already heavily impacted individuals at greater risk. However, these concerns are valid and should be met with solutions rather than criticism.

Health care inequality has always existed in the United States. Specifically, Black Americans have been victims of neglectful medical trials and racial bias within the U.S. health care system. 

A research article published by scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)  revealed Black patients are less likely to receive the appropriate medications from their doctors.

This is one of many examples of racial inequality in U.S. health care. 

Many Black Americans are hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to distrust of a health care system that has been historically racist.

While health care inequality is an ongoing issue, today’s distrust partially stems from disturbing historical events such as the Tuskegee Study.

According to the CDC, this United States Public Health Service study began in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama and went on for 40 years. The Tuskegee Study aimed to observe the progression of untreated syphilis from diagnosis to death. However, the 600 Black men recruited for the experiment were instead told they were receiving free medical treatment for bad blood.

Additionally, those who tested positive for syphilis were not informed they had the disease. When an effective treatment was developed, the test subjects were blocked from receiving treatment. Researchers prevented these men from receiving proper medical treatment so they could remain test subjects.

Participants were deceived by placebo medication that contained harmful ingredients such as mercury and arsenic. When subjects died, researchers conducted autopsies to further study the effects of syphilis on the body.

The study finally came to an end when U.S. Public Health Service employee Peter Buxtun leaked information to The New York Times. It was revealed that researchers lied to the public about details of the study. They claimed that Black men would likely refuse any syphilis treatments and suggested this justified the unethical nature of the study. 

The Tuskegee Study unsurprisingly damaged the reputation of the U.S. health care system within the Black community. Researchers knew participants could receive treatment that would save their lives but continued to block proper medical care for the sake of their experiment.

I completely understand the COVID-19 vaccine distrust within my community. Especially when our health care system has done so little to prove they have abandoned the racist mentality researchers used to justify the Tuskegee Study.

Although the Tuskegee Study concluded in 1969, ongoing inequalities continue to drive a wedge between the Black community and a health care system that should protect all citizens equally. 

Some health care inequality results directly from racist beliefs held by health care professionals and providers. 

According to a 2016 research article published by peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS, physicians were 47% more likely to underestimate the pain of Black patients due to the false belief that Black people have a higher pain tolerance than other races.

These racial biases lower the quality of health care we receive. It also results in the fear that we will be neglected or mistreated when receiving health care. Many believe this holds true for the COVID-19 vaccine as well, especially given that it’s new. 

Black people have historically served as test subjects of dangerous experiments as an effort to preserve the safety of white patients. As a result, some believe the COVID-19 vaccine could be history repeating itself.

One of the most concerning aspects of this medical distrust is how it will negatively affect Black communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.  

The COVID Tracking Project produced by The Atlantic in partnership with Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, gathers race and ethnic data on COVID-19 in the U.S. According to the data, Black people have died at 1.6 times the rate of white people from COVID-19. These rates will only increase if we refuse the vaccine. 

Unfortunately, our government and health care system do little to rebuild their relationship with Black people in the U.S. Some health care workers continue to treat Black patients on the basis of racist misconceptions. 

Our skepticism regarding the U.S. health care system will not go away until the racism and mistreatment does.

Although I plan to receive the vaccine, I will continue to advocate for those who feel unsafe doing so.