A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that half of Black Americans will not take a COVID-19 vaccine. Even some Black doctors and health care workers have refused the vaccine, citing safety …
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that half of Black Americans will not take a COVID-19 vaccine. Even some Black doctors and health care workers have refused the vaccine, citing safety concerns and the well-documented failures of the U.S. government to prioritize communities of color in medical research.
From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government lied to 600 Black men and told them they were getting free health care when they were actually the subjects of an experiment to see how syphilis progresses when left untreated. The results were devastating: 128 people lost their lives. Memories of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and the institutional racism that made it possible, have undoubtedly contributed to higher COVID-19 vaccine declination rates in communities of color across the U.S. Furthermore, the persistence of health disparities like Black American and Native American women experiencing 3.2 and 2.3 times, respectively, higher rates of pregnancy-related mortality reflects an apathy that compounds the mistrust. This Black History Month, we must acknowledge the dark truths of our nation’s past and the failures in our health care system that generate health disparities in order to chart a path forward that delivers equal justice and vaccines for all.
When the congressional attending physician instructed me to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in accordance with continuity of government guidelines, I knew that taking the vaccine would mean more than simply following doctor’s orders. As a Black man and an elected official, I want to use my example to build trust in our system of government, particularly within communities that have historically been betrayed by it. We know communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Compared to white Americans, Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized and two times more likely to die from COVID-19.
While distrust in government may be acute within communities of color, Americans from all walks of life have increasingly lost faith in our democratic institutions, as more and more people feel unheard and left behind by a system overwhelmed by the influence of money, special interests and partisan gridlock. Effective distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is a test of good governance—one we cannot fail. We must ensure that all communities—rural and suburban, white and Black—are getting reliable information and equitable access to vaccines.
In direct contrast to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, scientists of color and Black doctors have been involved in the development, study and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. And now, Black leaders across the country are seeking to overcome centuries of mistrust to get communities of color vaccinated. In a recent New York Times piece, for example, 60 Black health experts came together to urge Black Americans to get vaccinated, writing, “We are trained health professionals. We understand the science. We understand our community.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state officials and local governments can design and adjust their vaccination plans with justice in mind and listen to folks on the ground, like Black health care experts, who know what works within their communities. From public awareness campaigns and honest leadership to the strategic placement of vaccine sites and technical support for signing up, we have the tools to ensure equal distribution and utilization.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.” We must have the strength to make right the wrongs of our past and create a more perfect union—a union where all Americans are treated equally and with dignity by their government.
Antonio Ramon Delgado serves as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 19th congressional district.
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