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African-American Resistance to the COVID-19 Vaccine Reflects a Broader Problem

Back in March, when the pall of the pandemic hung over the city, and long stretches of Broadway were as desolate as a dry creek bed, the New York Police Department began enforcing a mandate to observe social-distancing measures. Between March 17th and May 4th, the Times reported, the police made forty arrests for social-distancing violations; thirty-five of those arrested were African-Americans. Deployed to fight a virus, the N.Y.P.D. delivered the same kind of slanted tallies that result when it is deployed to fight narcotics. COVID-19 has been the defining crisis of the year. But the racially skewed arrest numbers—like the racially skewed numbers associated with infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities—suggest that our perennial problem remains the disparities that mar the society into which the virus was introduced.

Inequalities abound in the narrative of this pandemic. Black people and Latinos have disproportionately lost their jobs in the COVID recession, but they are also more likely to perform the kinds of labor deemed essential, which accounts, in part, for the higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates found among these populations. For this and similar reasons, the fact that, on Monday, Sandra Lindsay, a Black nurse who works at the Long Island Jewish Hospital, became the first American to receive the Pfizer vaccine, and that it was administered to her by Dr. Michelle Chester, a Black doctor with Northwell Health, was laden with significance. Just forty-two per cent of African-Americans are willing to receive the vaccine, despite the fact that they are more likely than white Americans to be infected with—and die from—the virus. Last month, the N.A.A.C.P., in conjunction with two other organizations, released a report, “Vaccine Hesitancy in Black and Latinx Communities,” which found that just fourteen per cent of African-Americans surveyed “mostly or completely trust” the vaccine’s safety. On Wednesday, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who last month ran for a county commissioner’s seat in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, posted her doubts on Instagram, asking, “I really want to trust the scientist but why do they have a vaccine for COVID-19 so fast but not cancer or AIDS?”

Notably, Republicans are another group voicing significant skepticism about the vaccine; according to a Gallup poll conducted in October, less than half were willing to be vaccinated, compared with sixty-nine per cent of Democrats. Donald Trump has been a driving factor among both groups, albeit for very different reasons. Earlier this year, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that eighty-three per cent of Black people think that Trump is a racist, while the N.A.A.C.P.’s report notes that only four per cent of Blacks trust the Administration; that distrust has apparently bled into perceptions of the vaccine. Republicans, for their part, having been fed a steady diet of quack cures, pseudoscience, and misinformation by the White House, have been primed to disbelieve much of the science associated with the pandemic—and many of the scientists who have been working to put an end to it. This dynamic may change somewhat after Friday, when Vice-President Mike Pence was vaccinated on live television. The net result of all that has preceded that event, however, will be one that we have grudgingly become accustomed to this year: more people will die unnecessarily.

Yet, for Black America, the story extends far beyond Trump. In September, when Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a historically black institution in Louisiana, announced that he had volunteered for a vaccine trial, and encouraged his students do likewise, the Internet exploded with references to the Tuskegee experiment. In that four-decade-long medical scheme, which began in 1932, nearly four hundred African-American men with syphilis were led to believe that they were receiving treatment, but were, in fact, left untreated, so that doctors could chart the course of the disease. In the nearly fifty years since the experiment was exposed, it has become a central reference point for understanding Black Americans’ relationship to the medical establishment. The story of Henrietta Lacks—a Black woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer, and whose cancerous cells had been harvested for research, without her knowledge, by Johns Hopkins Hospital, replicated, sent to labs around the world, and later sold commercially—has likewise become shorthand for medical exploitation. That history, chronicled in works such as Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” and Dorothy Roberts’s “Killing the Black Body,” is, in part, what hampered efforts to recruit African-American volunteers for the trials, and now hampers efforts to get African-Americans vaccinated.

In this context, conversations about the vaccine are inevitably balancing acts between the unknown likelihood of contracting, or succumbing to, the virus and the known medical history of the African-American population. Such concerns are not walled-off by discipline, which is why the coercive approach of the N.Y.P.D. this spring, and the events that sparked the months of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, also contribute to a broader skepticism about—if not the science itself—the good faith of the system in which it exists. On Monday, Thomas Fisher, a Black E.R. physician at the University of Chicago Medicine, told me that “our essential people are getting sick, but being pushed to deliver food and drive Ubers, and things like that, without PPE.” He added, “It’s hard to imagine that we won’t also reflect maybe these same inequities with the distribution and uptake of this vaccine.”

One outcome of all this has been that many African-Americans who have not outright rejected the vaccine are taking a wait-and-see approach, which, in the short term, will slow the progress toward herd immunity and give the virus more time to circulate in the places where it has already been most deadly. Another result is that the success of the vaccination effort will depend largely on the credibility of the people associated with it. This is why there is such keen interest in Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African-American immunologist who was instrumental in the development of the Moderna vaccine—which, on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency use in adults. It is also why Black churches have begun sponsoring forums on vaccination. On Tuesday, the Reverend Matthew Watley, senior pastor at Kingdom Fellowship A.M.E. Church, in Silver Spring, Maryland, moderated an online discussion on the issue with the objective of addressing concerns in his congregation and beyond. “The goal is to ultimately have vaccinations done in our churches,” he told me. “We have to get this to where our people are.” Amid the remonstrances on the right and among some centrists about “identity politics,” the situation we find ourselves in now confirms, once more, that identity is, in fact, political. We will solve the riddle of COVID long before we resolve the reasons why, and for whom, it became so deadly.


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