“I don’t care who says that vaccine is safe. I’m not getting it. There’s no way I’m going to put foreign entities in my body.” These were the words of one of my oldest friends. A Black woman whom I’ve known for more than 25 years.
I listened to her words intently and without judgement. She went on: “These people have no idea what the long-term effects of this vaccine are. They don’t know if the vaccine will prevent us from getting COVID. They just don’t know.” “I agree”, I finally responded. “They don’t know what the long-term impact of this vaccine will be. But they do know what the outcome of COVID is — for many of us that is.” “I hear you”, I kept saying, “I get your distrust. I’m skeptical too. But I don’t feel like I have great choices right now. I just have to hope that this time they got it right because I’m going to have to go back to work regardless and if I don’t get the vaccine, it will only be a matter of time before I get COVID. So, I just have to hope”, I said.
Vaccine hesitancy has been the topic of much conversation in recent months. Black and Latinx communities are among the hardest hit by the corona virus but they are also reported to be the most hesitant to getting vaccinated. Public health workers throughout the country are pitching all sorts of solutions to this problem. We need to start an educational campaign to teach folks that the vaccine is safe. We need to make prominent people of color who are getting vaccinated more visible proponents of vaccination. Some have even suggested that we need to offer Black and Latinx people a monetary incentive to get vaccinated.
These well-intentioned solutions will ultimately be limited in helping us achieve herd immunity in the United States because none of these solutions get at the core of the distrust that Black and Latinx people feel. None of these solutions address the history of racist medical abuse that Black and Latinx individuals have been subject to since the beginning of time. These solutions do not offer a reckoning. They do not offer reparations. They do not offer assurance that medical institutions have improved upon the racial biases that led to the medical abuses in the first place. Without that, all of these campaigns to vaccinate Black and Latinx communities will fail.
Black and Latinx communities’ distrust for medical institutions is deep, rooted in history and nourished by present day experiences. We have known for some time that racial disparities in medical care is problem. But we aren’t engaging in comprehensive efforts to address this disparity. Medical institutions have not been incentivized to do anything about Black and Latinx individuals’ distrust for medical establishments, because historically that distrust has primarily hurt disenfranchised Black and Latinx people. White folks continued to get their better-quality health care unaffected by our suffering.
And then came COVID. This horrible virus with its deadly outcomes does not care what race you are. COVID is coming for all of us. This time Black and Latinx individual’s distrust of medical establishments will not only hurt them. This time, the distrust will hurt everyone.
Sad as our current situation is, I can’t help but revel in the irony of it. I’ve watched wealthy white people arguing repeatedly with Black and Latinx people who are opting-out of vaccination. “The vaccine is our only hope” they say. “We all have to get it in order to achieve herd immunity.” These people are scared. They are frustrated and they are completely ignorant to how much their words are falling on death ears. Black and Latinx people throughout the country are hearing these discussions and saying: oh! now you care about my health?
I cannot tell you how often I hear white people say that they understand that racism is bad and they aren’t themselves racists but they can’t do anything about what their ancestors did long before they were born. The problem with this logic is that it endeavors to absolve white people from being deemed perpetrators of racial inequity while ignoring the extent to which they benefit from those inequities. White folks aren’t innocent bystanders or even neutral partie in the replication of racism in this country. They are complicit whether actively or passively and so they must do the work of reparations.
What I see from this unfortunate public health crisis, is an opportunity for white folks to recognize that ultimately racial inequity is bad for all of us. Sooner or later, the racial disparities in the medical treatment Black and Latinx individuals receive will hurt white folks too. So, if you are a well-meaning white person who wants to learn the lessons that the pandemic is offering us, start with this.
Just because this country is unwilling to reckon with its racist history, its racist present and the impact that racism has and on the health of Black and Latinx communities does not mean that we will not ALL pay for these injustices.
Those Black and Latinx people who are refusing vaccines will continue to get COVID at disproportionate rates and ultimately, no matter how much racial segregation we have in this country, the higher infection rates in Black and Latinx communities will bleed into white communities, keeping us all sicker and less resilient than we could otherwise be.
As we bury our dead and treat the infected, let’s learn this lesson now. Let’s begin working on racism in our medical industry. Let’s start by looking honestly and directly at racial bias among doctors. Let’s unpack the higher rates of infant mortality and cesarian births for Black and Latinx people. Let’s own that in treating Black and Latinx patients, one must begin with acknowledging past harm done even if you were not the one to do. And then let’s work on making amends. The message from COVID is clear as day to me, if we do not do the work of earning the trust of Black and Latinx communities, we will all continue to suffer the consequences of past wrongs.