By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
In an informal poll on my Facebook page, I asked, “If a COVID vaccination were available would you get it?” The overwhelming majority of respondents, who were mostly African American, said no.
The World Health Organization reports that there are dozens of vaccines in development and a handful of human trials have begun on several of them. The earliest a vaccine will be available is 2021, if the trials are successful.
Vaccinations generally are universally encouraged and accepted as a protective antidote for viral infections. In my visits to Kaiser Hospital, I am repeatedly asked by nurses if I have had my flu vaccination shot and if not, did I want one? If so, it would be given on the spot.
That is and has been the standard protocol before and during flu season at virtually all hospitals. It’s certainly well established that childhood vaccines have been standard procedure for decades to combat the range of lethal diseases that include diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis) and others.
In times past, those diseases killed tens of thousands yearly and were horrific plagues. They are now almost a thing of the past. Vaccines then do work.
Yet, almost from the moment the coronavirus pandemic hit, blacks screamed the loudest that they feared that they would be the hardest hit by the pandemic. The disproportionate death rate of blacks from COVID-19 in some cities certainly bore out that fear.
But the disproportionate African-American death count is hardly the revelation of the ages. Countless studies, surveys and reports have repeatedly shown that blacks are at the top of the list of groups at highest risk from every conceivable disease, affliction and malady.
They are less likely to have access to affordable, quality medical care and treatment than other groups. Countless studies also have shown that they have suffered medical indifference and skepticism, if not outright neglect, on the part of many medical practitioners.
So, one would think that if there was an antidote available to COVID-19 in the form of a vaccine, then blacks would grab at it. The negative response to vaccines at first glance that seems so puzzling is anything but.
The one word that repeatedly was tossed out by the respondents was Tuskegee. That’s the infamous Tuskegee experiment in which black males suffering from syphilis were deliberately allowed to suffer and die for four decades with the knowing consent of the U.S. Public Health Service without any treatment.
Then there’s the still wildly racially disparate accessibility of health care and treatment between blacks and whites. When the dreaded Ebola disease struck a few years back and the visible face of the victims were black the racial double standard instantly kicked in. There was concern that treatment was lagging precisely because the victims were black.
There’s also the fear that blacks are guinea pigs in new drug treatments. The fear was heightened when Bill Gates mentioned population control to a CNN interviewer when discussing his massive funded health initiatives in Third World countries, particularly Africa. The conspiracy theorists went berserk.
They accused Gates of having sinister designs to kill off blacks. The claim was totally debunked. But the image of a plot to eliminate blacks through medical programs and testing was again firmly planted with some.
Conspiracies, distrust, racial double standards past and present, topped by the uncertainty over when or if there will even be a workable COVID-19 vaccination creates the perfect storm of doubt and outrage over the merits of vaccines. In truth, blacks are hardly unique in their skepticism about vaccines, any vaccines.
Pew Research surveys found that a significant number of Americans were deeply skeptical of the safety and risk of COVID vaccinations as well as other vaccines. That does not bode well.
The public must have complete trust that a vaccine is safe and effective for it to have maximum value in preventing outbreaks of infections and diseases. Without that trust, it virtually ensures that viral infections will continue to be a public health risk and thus an endangerment to wide segments of the population. The uncertainty and debate over a future COVID-19 vaccine is no different.
It’s precisely because the infection is so feared and deadly to all, irrespective of their race or class, that American and western health officials have little choice but to act with all available resources. It’s in part self-interest and self-protection, and in greater part the rude awakening that this is not 1940, or 1950 when the world was a much smaller place.
The ease and accessibility of global travel, the non-stop mobility of travelers and immigrants and the quantum leap in interpersonal contacts between peoples across all ethnic lines in America have radically changed the social, cultural and health picture for Americans and indeed the world. Fear of a coronavirus vaccine in the making may be understandable, but given the monumental health risks of doing nothing, it is not excusable.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “COVID Politics—Trump’s Deadly Game” (Amazon). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.