Racism’s impact on COVID-19 vaccination rates

Updated: Mar 9

Existing evidence suggests that Black Americans remain hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccination because of prior experimentation on Black citizens, according to early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reports from national news outlets, such as the National Public Radio (NPR).

The Kaiser Family Foundation states that only 55 percent of Black Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19. This is lower than the percentages for both white and Hispanic populations.

This trend is not unique to the United States as a whole, either. According to the Knox County Health Department, only 36.5 percent of Black residents are vaccinated as of February 3. This is the lowest percentage of any racial group in Knoxville.

“But we also have differences tied to race and ethnicity … COVID revealed to us the extent of disparities,” said Carole Myers, professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and creator and co-host of National Public Radio (NPR) podcast HealthConnections. “Disparities in healthcare, disparities in health outcomes, and disparities in what we call the social determinants of health. So [the COVID-19 pandemic] revealed what was there for a long time, but COVID also created new disparities.”

These disparities in the healthcare system prevent Black people from being given proper treatment. For instance, studies conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) showed that Black people are less likely to receive pain medication than white people for the same ailments. This practice stems from a widely held false belief that Black people feel less pain, with origins dating back to at least the 1800s that were rooted in the publication of those beliefs as medical facts by doctors, such as Samuel Cartwright. Despite the fact that they have been proven false, they are still prevalent in the medical field.

A large reason Black Americans seem to be avoiding COVID-19 vaccination likely stems from distrust in the US government and the healthcare system. After all, Black citizens have a troubled relationship with the United States healthcare system stemming from a long history of abuse that other demographic groups do not necessarily share.

The most notable example is a study informally known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was conducted by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) in conjunction with the Tuskegee Institute between 1932 and 1972.

According to the CDC, nearly 400 Black men enrolled in this program, likely to receive the free healthcare they were promised, where many were diagnosed with syphilis but never informed.

Despite the fact that by 1947 the treatment for syphilis was widely available, these men were never told they had syphilis nor provided with penicillin to treat it. This study continued until 1972 when it was shut down after an Associated Press expose.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, during this forty-year time period, nearly 130 of the men died due to syphilis or complications with syphilis, and 40 of the patients’ wives were infected.

This was not the only instance of the American government illegally experimenting on its citizens. Another of the most well-known of these experiments is Project MK-Ultra, in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tested drugs, such as LSD, and cruel interrogation methods on unknowing people. Many victims were those deemed to be less important in our society, such as mental health patients, drug addicts, and prisoners. “People who could not fight back,” said one agency officer in a 1999 interview with the New York Times. This illegal project was run from 1953 until its official end in 1973.

These illegal experiments do not garner a lot of trust in the government, especially when there are still false, racist beliefs within the healthcare system that prevent Black Americans from getting proper care.

Carole Myers hopes that the pandemic will trigger action that will contribute to eliminating these disparities in healthcare. “I think that this pandemic has painted a picture of America that isn’t the picture that I want to see,” she said.

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