Editor’s note: Have something on your mind? “Community Voices” is the place to let Milwaukee hear what you have to say. To be considered, we need your name, email address and phone number for verification. Please email your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarence Montgomery is an advocate, trainer and developmental leader as well as a case manager and licensed counselor at Children’s Wisconsin.
Today’s challenges are difficult for those who have lost loved ones, those who are still suffering from and those who still live in fear of the COVID-19 virus. COVID-19 has been around for more than a year, and as I write this, the virus has killed more than 527,000 men, women and children in the United States.
Over the last two plus months, three vaccines have been developed to minimize the effectiveness of the virus. Yet some populations are very apprehensive, if not downright reluctant, to get vaccinated. This includes Black and Brown individuals, whose reluctance is well-founded. The feelings of mistrust have a history of damage that’s historical in scale. The culprits are medical systems that have inflicted human experiments, both surgical and psychological, as well as trials or tests including the testing of vaccines.
It’s not too hard to find historical context for the apprehension toward vaccines in communities of color, from well-documented stories passed down from generation to generation to recent reports of the lack of efficacy in access to the vaccine.
This mistrust stems from people like Dr. J. Marion Sims, who in the middle 1800s bought African American women from plantations owners for “experiments.” He butchered them to create a surgical tool that’s used today by gynecologists around the world. Sims, who is described as the “father of modern gynecology,” is not the only example of “the ends justify the means” excuse used by medical systems at the expense of human beings.
Another notable set of examples are the horrific Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which lasted for more than 40 years. Doctors sponsored by the United States government infected thousands of African American families in the South with syphilis from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some died as a result, some infected their partners, and others suffered as a result of the disease even after the cure of penicillin had been developed.
African Americans’ reluctance in accessing the vaccine is well-founded. In Congress, a Democratic Staff Report was commissioned in 2020 titled “COVID-19 & Achieving Health: Congressional Action Is Necessary to Address Racism and Inequality in The U.S. Health Care System.” The report found that “The American health care system has a shameful legacy of racism and exploitation that is often unacknowledged . . . it is important to recognize that others participated in the abuse of people of color by experimenting on their bodies, denying or providing treatment without consent, stealing genetic information, and more.”
There are many more examples of medical misconduct, from tissue theft of African Americans to sterilizing women of color without consent, which, in fact, was being done as recently as last year by the United States government.
Reluctance is one thing, but access is another. Communities of color are having a difficult time accessing the vaccine unlike some populations in the United States, even as there are more than 2.3 million individuals being vaccinated each day.
A segment Thursday, March 11 on CNN’s “Inside Politics” provided a graph that showed the numbers for those who have had the two doses necessary: 67.6% were white and the nearest group came in at 7.3% for Hispanics and 6.4% for African Americans.
On Feb. 13, the Washington Post reported, “a lack of pharmacies, hospitals, providers and transportation has emerged as an equally significant concern in those communities, where COVID-19 has wrought its worst damage.”
A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes the warranted feelings of people of color: “Of all the forms of inequality and injustice, health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Question: by declining a vaccine aren’t you just creating additional disparity and reduced outcome for yourself, and exacerbating the problem?
Since the same vaccines are being given to all genders and races, how can this instance be viewed as another case of health care racism?
Jennifer Hoepner says
Ellen, you seem to be assuming that the same vaccines are being given to all genders and races and that begs the original question: Are they? As Mr. Montgomery discusses, there have been situations in the past where people have been “assured” and told by the government and health care providers that they were being given something beneficial, when it was not. Black and Brown individuals certainly have a well founded sense of mistrust in this situation. As a white mother of a Black child, I too share this concern. Could there be different things being injected into me and my kiddo in some experiment? How can I be sure? I invite you to learn more about the situations Mr. Montgomery sites in the article, especially the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Thank you.
John Jansen says
Thank you for your thoughtful article explaining America’s past sins in the healthcare field. Turning to our current crisis, the Kaiser Family Foundation and W. Kamau Bell have just came out with this extraordinary short video “from Black people to Black people” that addresses all of the issues surrounding the current vaccine, with the noble goal of saving lives in minority communities. It’s called “The Conversation: Between Us, About Us.” Please view and pass it along: https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/press-release/the-conversation-between-us-about-us-a-new-campaign-by-black-health-care-workers-for-black-people-about-the-covid-19-vaccines/. Thank you very much.