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Medical racism and the COVID-19 vaccine

Understanding the mistrust surrounding the vaccine

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BIPOC vaccine

With the advent of COVID-19 vaccine, many people have expressed hope for a sense of normalcy after a particularly traumatic year. While the vaccine is expected to be available to the general public as soon as May according to CNN, a number of baseless conspiracy theories regarding the vaccine have sprouted across the nation, from accusations that the vaccine will be used to implant microchips to claims that it causes DNA alteration. 

Although many of these are simply not true and are a product of American paranoia, amidst the outlandish accusations lies a founded and rational distrust of the medical system among BIPoC folx. For Black Americans, unethical experimentation on their bodies is no conspiracy theory, but an extensive, brutal part of history that has shaped the medical field into what it is today.

From primitive nervous systems to inferior states of consciousness, a multitude of false claims have been assigned to bodies of color by white researchers, rationalizing unethical practices on marginalized communities while further perpetuating racial stereotypes. 

Clarence Spigner, a professor in the School of Public Health, discussed the racial history of unethical experimentation and the impact it has on the Black community.

“Racist practices in the medical field came from the era of biological racism or scientific racism which started mainly during the 19th century in Europe,” Spigner said in an email. “The notion was that Black people were the opposite of White people.”

In numerous fields of research, such as cancer and gynecology, much of our foundation of medicinal knowledge comes from the appropriation of Black bodies.

“The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments of 1932-1972 were based on the hypothesis that syphilis affected Black people differently than it did white people,” Spigner said. “As a stubborn hold-over from racism and medical training, there is still the myth that Black people experience less pain, or have a higher tolerance for it, than whites.”

To many, these events may be a surprise; something as objective and fundamental as healthcare should be founded on equity. However, from microaggressive remarks toward colleagues to unequal treatment for patients due to implicit bias, the lived reality for many Black Americans is that the medical field continues to be an active perpetrator of systemic racism. 

“Keep in mind that while the Tuskegee Experiments were steadily underway, WWII Nazi medical experiments occurred,” Spigner said. “Nazis were brought to trial for ‘Mississippi appendectomies’ or uninformed sterilizations of African American women in the rural south by doctors under a eugenics rationale that happened from the 1940s to the 1980s.”

From a recent case, a Black physician, Susan Moore, died from COVID-19 in December 2020 upon having her pains and concerns downplayed. Even though her profession allowed her to have an extensive knowledge of medical protocols and terminology, the doctors were dismissive and suggested that she be discharged from care.

“Medical institutions have gotten much more sophisticated in hiding their racism,” Spigner said. “Institutionalized racism is policies and practices in place, whether intentional or not, that produce racist outcomes. This is the reason that such practices continue to affect Black Americans today. They differ by sophistication but the racism, now called structural racism, remains the same.”

With that said, how does all of this relate to COVID-19 and the vaccine?

In a study about the impacts of COVID-19 in marginalized communities, it was found that Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of the virus than white Americans. 

Along with founded mistrust, the lack of accessibility to resources is another factor that explains why Black Americans are receiving the vaccine at lower rates. 

As we can see, it is by design that the healthcare system does not benefit Black folx. So how should we approach the anxieties of BIPoC students, specifically Black students? What precautions should current Black students and faculty members practice once they receive the vaccine?

“Black students and faculty members will have to do what their ancestors have always done, remain vigilant,” Spigner said. “For instance, knowing all that I know, I will get the vaccine when it is my turn. Black students and faculty will need to read what you will write. They need to be as informed and as critical as humanly possible. They need to avoid or be skeptical of social media.”

As we approach the hopeful end of a pandemic, it is important to remember that for many non-Black folx, we have the privilege of returning to a sense of “normalcy.”

“Medical establishments are only now giving attention to African Americans' distrust of vaccines because the entire nation is under attack from a pandemic,” Spigner said. “What seems to be more in the realms of self-interest, which is understandable, is contextually disgusting. What happens when the virus has run its course? Racism will still be with us, along with all those social inequalities in health.”

In the future, although COVID-19 may become a memory, systemic racism will continue to exist — not only in our policing system, but in our healthcare system — until we start making real change. 

Reach contributing writer Kevin Min at Twitter: @astroboykev

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(1) comment

More Inclusive than Thou

Jesus Christ.

What is the Periodic Table like if you are black? Is there mass, force, and energy if one is black? Does gravity work the same for black people?

This is why I tread cautiously around assumptions of racism. Because of the overwhelming preponderance of outright idiocy concerning race in academia.

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