Fear and distrust of the medical system is one of the main reasons why many people are hesitant to be vaccinated against diseases. While much of this vaccine hesitancy is driven by disproven conspiracy theories (like vaccines causing autism), for racialized communities this hesitancy comes from a very real history of racial abuse by medical professionals. Historical events dating back centuries establish a long-standing issue of exploitation of racialized people. Hidden under the guise of scientific advancement racialized people have long been subjected to experimentation of medical and vaccine-related testing. Building back trust between the medical community and black, brown, Indigenous, Asian and other racialized communities will be critical to ensure everyone feels safe being vaccinated.
The Tuskegee Study
In 1932, six-hundred African-American men were enlisted in a medical experiment in Macon County, Alabama that came to be known as the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”. The experiment was originally meant to observe the progression of untreated syphilis in the human body and the community of Macon County. Over the course of the experiment the United States Public Health Service exploited six hundred syphilis-positive participants, forcing them to undergo various medical procedures and suffer from a treatable disease without their informed consent.
Initially, participants of the study were told they would receive treatment for “bad blood”, a term which could be used to encompass any number of blood-borne diseases; however, participants were given no useful or helpful treatment at all. All were given placebo treatments and made to undergo painful tests. As participation began to dwindle, measures were taken to coerce participation including providing hot meals and paying funeral expenses if participants agreed to be autopsied.
As the study went on and some participants began to seek treatment for their diagnosed syphilis from other medical professionals, patients were actively prevented from receiving medications that would alleviate their pain and suffering. It wasn’t until 1972 that the study was ended after an outpouring of public outrage. Overall, the study resulted in the deaths of 128 participants, either directly from syphilis or related complications. Countless other participants endured unimaginable suffering as a result of their conditions and the procedures they underwent during the experiment.
Although the Tuskegee study is argued to be one of the most infamous breaches of biomedical ethics against racialized communities in American history, it is far from the only incident.
Canadian Indigenous Testing
In Canada, there has been a reported history of unauthorized vaccination testing on residential school students and other groups of impoverished Indigenous youth. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation, survivors gave testimony of receiving unauthorized tuberculosis vaccinations during their time in residential schools. Despite the known connection between proper living conditions and health, it was often the case that vaccines would be given to children to avoid having to make large investments into improving living conditions either in schools or on reservations.
Where We Stand Today
Systemic and environmental racism in our communities has long-lasting effects. Racialized people are often at much larger risk for environment-related health issues. They are statistically more probable to lives in areas with worse air and water quality, have fewer outlets for healthy food and exercise options and face higher barriers to accessing health care services. All of these items contribute to the risk of contracting or having severe symptoms of a deadly virus such as COVID-19.
A pattern of historical events, such as Tuskegee, cause much higher levels of hesitancy in racialized people who are all potential recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine. A recent study conducted by Pew Research Center in the US demonstrated that only 43% of African-Americans surveyed would receive the COVID-19 vaccine if given the opportunity.
The same study showed that 36% of Black, and 37% of Hispanic people are “very concerned” about getting a “serious case of COVID-19”. We understand from this that racialized people hold a greater fear of getting extremely ill from this virus but feel more helpless in terms of seeking treatment.
What Can We Do?
Education and awareness are key to understanding and correcting issues of systemic racism and medical hesitancy for racialized people. To understand why racialized people, remain skeptical of medical treatments, especially vaccines, conduct your own research of cases like the Tuskegee Study. It is also important to understand environmental racism and why this leaves racially and economically marginalized people specifically vulnerable.
There are documentaries and dramatized films on these topics which you can watch to further your knowledge and understanding of this issue.
Systemic racism and trauma feeds vaccine hesitancy for Black Canadians
Indigenous communities history with health-care system creating vaccine hesitancy
Miss Evers’ Boys: The true story of the U.S. Government’s 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which a group of black test subjects were allowed to die, despite a cure having been developed. Available to rent on Google Play or HBO Max.
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Vice President Equity