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White man injecting a black man while two others watch
A doctor draws blood from one of the subjects in the Tuskegee Syphilis Test conducted on Black men by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. Photo by National Archives/Public Domain

‘Guinea pigs and Lab Rats’: Black Vaccine Skepticism Rooted in History, Abuse

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, communities of color have been ravaged disproportionately by the virus. And as the world celebrates the distribution of vaccines, these same communities who need them most are shying away from the cure. 

A Pew Research Center study found only 42% of Black Americans would consider taking the vaccine. The Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. found that only 57% of respondents from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were likely to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 79% of White respondents. 

‘There is a Distrust There and Rightfully So’

On Jan. 6, the world watched President Donald Trump supporters storming the home of American democracy to protest the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s win in an action that left five people dead. 

Photo of Edward Thomas in suit
Rev. Edward S. Thomas of Clarksdale, Miss., says it makes historic sense that Black Americans are wary about vaccines. Courtesy  King’s Temple Missionary Baptist Church

The differing treatment of an overwhelmingly White mob in comparison to Black Lives Matter protesters underpins the institutional racism in American society

The Rev. Edward S. Thomas, 47, of Clarksdale, Miss., a fifth-generation pastor, believes the events that took place on Capitol Hill will fuel vaccine hesitancy in the AfricanAmerican community. 

“African Americans are weary of any vaccine supported and promoted by our government. Our history shows that we have been used as guinea pigs and lab rats, so there is a distrust there and rightfully so,” he says. 

“But what happened on Capitol Hill further widens the divide in a sense of us trusting a government who allows a system whereby democracy is what it is called but it is systemic racism. We watched for hours as (some) Capitol Police opened gates and let rioters in. The things that White people are allowed to do and given privilege to do, there would not have been tolerance for African Americans.”

A History of Exploitation and Mistreatment

The African American community’s distrust of American medical establishment is traced back to a history of exploitation and mistreatment.  

In 1932, what is commonly known as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” left a scar on the Black community. The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama tested Black men with syphilis to examine the progression of the disease. The men involved were told they were being treated, but the report released nearly 40 years later by Associated Press reporter Jean Heller revealed they went untreated and were deliberately misled about the experiment

In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. But doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., removed samples of her cancerous cells without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. Her cells, now called “HeLa cells,” were found to be able to survive and reproduce, and thus deemed immortal. 

HeLa cells became the driving force for biological research, even being used in studies for vaccines against COVID-19. But her family was never compensated for the profits her cell research produced. Decades after her death, doctors and scientists revealed Lacks’ identity, medical records and her cells’ genome without the consent of her surviving family members.

The “father of modern gynecology,” James Marion Sims, who pioneered surgery for a childbirth complication called vesicovaginal fistula, made this discovery by conducting experiments on enslaved African women without anesthesia.

Solution Found in Survival Skills, Resilience

In the early throes of today’s pandemic, two French doctors suggested that a possible coronavirus vaccine should be tested in Africa. For Dominique Day, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, this controversy highlights the idea of Black expendability and so the hesitancy to take a vaccine should be understood.

“We have seen that these institutions have never protected us. This is something that Black folk in the U.S. and Black folk around the world have lived with, and not lived with in a bitter and resentful way but as a criterion for our survival,’ she says.

Studies show that Black and Indigenous Americans suffer the highest death rates. According to APM Research Lab’s study, the Color of Coronavirus, 1 in 475 Indigenous Americans and 1 in 645 Black Americans have died nationally. 

“This idea that Black bodies are available for experimentation, expendable in the process of scientific discovery and disposable for White need, White privilege and White profit, that is a not a new expression in our society,” Day said. “But what needs to be done is less of this narrative that we have been hearing of, that is so irresponsible for saying you don’t trust the science. The skepticism isn’t coming out of ignorance; it comes from the survival skills and resilience of people of African descent in a world that has systematically tried to eliminate us.” 

Similar Distrust in Black British Community

Distrust of the government and skepticism of medical institutions are also felt by the Black British community. In Britain, Black males are 3.3 times more likely and Black women are 2.4 times more likely to die of the coronavirus than their White counterparts.  

Dr. Victoria Onyeka, a junior doctor in West Norfolk, England, and a founder of the UK’s Black Medical Society, believes the legacy of colonialism, racism and the disproportionate death rate between Blacks and Whites is fueling vaccine skepticism amongst all age groups in the Black community. 

Old photo of a smiling woman in front of a brick wall
Henrietta Lack was a Black woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line. Photo courtesy of Lacks family/Henrietta Lacks Foundation

“Honestly, I have known there has been a distrust against the medical community. But I know people who have degrees that are very reluctant to be vaccinated. They say, ‘Why would we trust a government that does not take care of us,’ ” she says. 

“The distrust comes from the fact that they do not feel heard, they feel stereotyped, their symptoms are not taken seriously, they don’t feel like they are understood. To Black people their culture is very important, and so, when people feel like their identity is being disregarded, they feel distant. So, because that mistrust has been there for such a long time, if their trust has been betrayed once, they spread that, and it spreads like wildfire.” 

Faith Uwadiae, 33, of London, England, works as an immunologist at The Francis Crick Institute. She feels the best way to counter vaccine skepticism in the Black community is through community outreach.

“People from the community just see White faces telling them information, but it is those White faces they have learned to mistrust,” she said. 

“Community outreach has been cut back in the U.K. Having direct interaction with health workers in the community has been lost. We have to understand why people are distrusting. It could even just be a language barrier issue. In my own life, once I explain to people with my science background that the science hasn’t moved too fast, people start to understand a little more. At the moment, we are just collecting statistics, which show us the Black community is skeptical of the vaccine, but what are we doing to reach out to those people who most need it?” 

The Black church in both the U.K. and the U.S. is the reference point for many who are distrusting of the country’s institutions. People are turning to their church leaders and members of their congregation for guidance on whether to take the vaccine. Misinformation about the coronavirus can be debunked or spread via these means. 

The Focus on Vaccine Hesitancy Should Shift

The Black church is taking a similar role to the services it gave to the community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, as it has historically been a source of community medicine for a group that is statistically more underserved by health services.

“People think that science and faith are at odds, but they are in cohabitation with each other. It is prudent and wise to speak to doctors in the congregation. Listen, we need to know how this is going to affect us.” the Rev. Thomas says. 

“I have older members that won’t listen to their doctor but will listen to their pastor, and so it’s incumbent on me as a spiritual leader to make sure what I say to them is the truth. So, I have to make sure I do all my research and homework to make sure I am speaking to them from an informed position.” 

Despite misinformation and the historical mistrust that the Black community has toward medical institutions, Dr. Melissa Clarke, author of “Excuse Me Doctor! I’ve Got What?,” thinks the focus on vaccine hesitancy should shift.

“The initial mistrust is fertile ground for fear-based theories because anything you hear that backs up that mistrust is what you will pay attention to,” she says. 

“But I see more people saying they will take the vaccine. In addition, the fact that healthcare workers are getting vaccinated first and a large percentage of them are Black folks means their families see there aren’t serious complications for taking the vaccine. So instead of talking about vaccine hesitancy, we should start talking about vaccine acceptance because that is the direction we are moving in.” 

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting produced this piece in partnership with Studiotobe.

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