Black People and COVID-19 Vaccination : Be Wary; Get Protected, Anyway.

We need to embrace vaccination against COVID-19 even though we have good reasons to be wary of health researchers and clinicians. For example:

  • James Marion Sims is celebrated as the father of modern gynecology. He perfected his surgical techniques by operating on Black women who were slaves and did so without anesthesia.
  • In 1932, in Tuskegee, AL, withheld treatment from Black men with syphilis to study the course of untreated infection. Even though penicillin was developed in 1928 and by 1947 was known as the standard treatment for this disease, the “study” continued until 1972.
  • In December of 2020, the NY Times reported that a Black woman physician died of COVID-19 even though she posted videos complaining that doctors ignored her pain and shortness of breath in the hospital and did not offer her standard treatment for the infection.
  • Every Black family has a story like this. Many have several stories.

Even so, COVID-19 has killed more than ½ million people in this country, and it kills us at a rate far higher than our representation in the population. Reports say this is because we are more likely to have underlying conditions (including but not limited to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease) that increase our risk. Researchers also cite the risks imposed by social injustice as it limits our access to healthcare and fuels differences in how we receive care. Social injustice also affects the cost and availability of nutritious food, safe ways to exercise, and the unrelenting stress of systemic racism. I believe these factors explain why we suffer the underlying conditions. If we are going to fight for social justice, we have to be here. Vaccination saves lives.

Smallpox, measles, and influenza killed people at this level until the population was widely vaccinated. It is true that COVID-19 vaccines were developed and tested quickly, and we don’t know about long-term side effects. However, when measles and smallpox ravished the population, there was also a rush to save lives without significant information about the long-term effects. Initially, there was no smallpox vaccine. People rubbed pus from an infected person on a small skin wound and hoped for immunity instead of death. Even so, this practice significantly reduced the impact of smallpox in the late 18th Century.

Please get whichever vaccine you can as soon as you are eligible. The research and side effect profiles of all COVID-19 vaccines are essentially the same. Some people have no reaction. Many people have a day or two of some combination of fatigue, fever, chills, headache, and diarrhea. These are not signs of infection but evidence that your body is learning how to fight the virus. Life-threatening reactions are rare and may be more common in people with other severe allergies. Vaccination doesn’t mean you won’t get COVID-19. It means your body will be prepared to fight so if you get it, you’re not as likely to die.

2020 shined the light on social injustice, AGAIN. Each time the light has shined in the past, we have fought hard to move toward justice. The coming fight will also be hard and long. There will be setbacks and restarts. There must be enough of us to keep shining lights, demanding accountability, and working for effective and sustained change.  European immigrants to this hemisphere did not eliminate 60% of the Native populations with firearms. They did it with measles and smallpox (and tuberculosis). Let’s not get wiped out. Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and continue using masks, social distancing, and hand-washing until this pandemic is under control.

I believe more people would accept vaccination if primary care clinicians could stock the vaccine, and if we set up sites to educate and vaccinate in churches, barber, hair, and nail shops, grocery stores, and other places people know and trust. Refrigerated vans could deliver supplies throughout the day. Other ideas?

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