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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
“I lost my father to covid-19 — along with my faith in India’s government to protect our people,” wrote Barkha Dutt, the Emmy nominated journalist in her column in the Washington Post in May.
She can’t understand the reluctance of Americans to vaccinate against Covid when they can. “Cash-rich Western countries without vaccine mandates are displaying the worst sort of privilege and unacceptable self-indulgence..when what you claim as a right starts being injurious to the well-being of others, it becomes indefensible,” she stated in her Post opinion column later in August.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified vaccine hesitancy as a leading global health threat.
Different communities have different reasons for not taking Covid shots. Getting to the heart of their concerns can help address them.
The CDC is collecting and analyzing state-reported data on COVID-19 vaccinations by race and ethnicity. Figure 1 below shows the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations, cases, and deaths among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White people. Data on Indian Americans is presented under the Asian group.
African Americans have nearly the lowest rates of vaccination among any ethnic group. As of September 21, 2021, CDC reported that race/ethnicity was known for 59% of people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Among this group, nearly two thirds were White (60%), 10% were Black, 17% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian, 1% were American Indian or Alaska Native, and <1% were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, while 5% reported multiple or other race.
Life expectancy has dropped by a year for everybody and it has dropped by two years for African Americans during this period.
Mistrust of the healthcare system among African Americans has historical roots in the Tuskegee Study of 1932 when 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama, participated in what they believed was a study of “bad blood,” a colloquial term encompassing anemia, syphilis, fatigue and other conditions. They were completely unaware that they were being experimented on for syphilis and that the goal of the study was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in black populations. The USPHS conducted blood tests, x-rays, spinal taps, and autopsies of the subjects. Though government agencies were given several options to end the human experimentation study, they didn’t, and continued the study till late 1969
The pain of the Tuskegee Study still clouds the choices of some African Americans when it comes to their healthcare.
Historical mistrust of the health system in addition to the current-day disparities in healthcare has made African Americans reluctant to get vaccinated.
“African Americans suffer from health conditions at a disproportionately higher rate and need to know how to organize their health care delivery options in a way that allows them to best utilize health care services,” said Dr. Michael LeNoir, the chairperson of the Board of The African American Wellness Project, at an Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 21. Dr. LeNoir said their goal was to give his community tools to deal with health care systems.
Alva Brannon, a victim of the Tuskegee Institute study who was born with syphilis and turned blind at age 7 shared her experience with the Covid vaccine. Brannon kept evading the vaccine till her daughter and her church finally convinced her to take the vaccine in the interest of protecting herself and her loved ones – her grandchildren.
“The grandparents hold a place of high respect. If grandparents tell the young to get vaccinated it can happen. We can increase the rate of vaccinations,” said Dr. LeNoir.
Reverend Steven Shepard, the Pastor of St. Paul AME Church in San Bernardino, admitted he had not been a fan of vaccinations and didn’t really want to get a vaccination at first. Then he experienced COVID firsthand and nearly lost his life to it. He is now a strong proponent and an advocate for COVID-19 vaccines in his community. He is bringing hope, health, and healing to a community that suffers from health disparities, he said at the briefing.
People are going to their pastor for a religious exemption to not get vaccinated, said Cheryl Brown, Chair of AME Church’s Social Action Committee but, “There is no religious exemption. The Bible says we have to take care of ourselves.
Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.
image: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash