By Rev. Irene Monroe December 12, 2020
Massachusetts hospitals are filling up again, like those across the country. Many of the patients are Black and Latino Americans, the groups that have been most disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The good news is that a COVID-19 vaccine is just weeks away from the first phase of distribution.
The troubling question is, will Black and Latino Americans show up to take it?
“I am not feeling this vaccine, and I’m certainly not feeling like being in the guinea pig phase,” the Rev. Emmett Price told me on our WGBH News podcast, All Rev’d Up. Like many Black ministers across the country, he is not comfortable telling his congregation to be first in line for the vaccine.
Price is not alone. His reservations about the vaccine come from a history of experimenting on Black bodies that has resulted in trauma that spans generations and continued health disparities that resonate to this day.
The Rev. Liz Walker, the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a former WBZ anchor, recognized the high level of hesitancy many of her Black parishioners, and the community at large, had to get vaccinated. She invited the country’s most trusted voice on the issue — Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Walker conducted a webinar in November where Fauci spoke to the Roxbury community. He recognized our distrust in the medical system but assured the audience that the speed with which the vaccine was developed does not compromise its safety or its scientific integrity.
Fauci did express concern about the lack of diversity in the clinical trials for the vaccine and say that he wished more minorities were in them.
“What’s safe and effected should not be only for whites,” Fauci said.
Most African Americans, young or old, cannot shake off the Tuskegee Experiment, a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 to observe the effects of untreated syphilis on African American men under the guise that they were receiving free health care. It resulted in a lifelong hell of mental and health complications for these men, their families and their offspring.
Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman from Virginia whose cancer cells were the source for the first immortalized human cell line in medical research. Her cells were essential in developing the polio vaccine and researching leukemia, AIDS and various cancers. They were taken without her consent in the 1950s, and the Lacks family is still suing Johns Hopkins for compensation.
1n 2018, a statue of J. Marion Sims, called the “father of gynecology,” erected in 1890, was finally removed from New York’s Central Park. The statue stood across from the New York Academy of Medicine. Sims perfected his revolutionary surgeries on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia. He started using anesthesia once he began to treat white women at his clinic in New York City.
Black people are not largely anti-vaxxers, but the high levels of hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine are understandable. To assist in shoring up confidence throughout the country, former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have volunteered to get their vaccines on camera.
I am asked constantly whether I will get the COVID-19 vaccine. I don’t know yet. My spouse is an ER physician and will get vaccinated before me. She is my canary in the coal mine.
First published on WGBH https://www.wgbh.org/news/commentary/2020/12/12/history-has-me-hesitant-about-the-coronavirus-vaccine