An Associated Press poll published on Wednesday found that a “surprisingly low” number of Americans—around 50 percent—said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available. In total, nearly a third said they weren’t sure if they would get vaccinated, while another 20 percent said they would outright refuse.
But, as has been the case with the coronavirus since the pandemic hit the U.S., this is also a story about race.
The AP article noted—as did other publications—that black Americans were the group most likely to say they would not get vaccinated, at 40 percent (another 32 percent said they were not sure). Latinx respondents were also less likely than white people to say they would get a vaccine: 37 percent said they would get one, while another 60 percent said they would not get vaccinated or were unsure.
Black Americans expressed less interest in getting a COVID-19 vaccine than Republicans—just over a quarter of whom said they would not get a vaccine. Generally, support for a vaccine was strongest among Democrats, the elderly, and white people.
AP’s writeup mentions that black people are among the most likely to contract and die from the virus. What it doesn’t mention—not even in passing—is why African Americans might be more skeptical of an early vaccine than other groups.
This isn’t just a side observation or helpful historical context; it’s central to understanding the historic and systemic obstacles facing many African Americans who have sought adequate health care.
These obstacles have played out in the coronavirus pandemic itself: medical deserts, where people living in historically redlined communities do not have access to a physician or a hospital. Chronic conditions that are undiagnosed or untreated because the cost and burden of finding adequate healthcare is prohibitive. The toll that living in a racial caste has on black people’s overall health and resilience.
But there’s also the history of hundreds of years of abuse, performed at the hands of the medical establishment, that have left some African Americans, Latinx and indigenous populations wary of medical interventions. Enslaved Africans who ran away from plantations suffered amputations to treat “drapetomania,” or “runaway slave syndrome.” A recent ProPublica investigation found a disproportionate number of black Americans receive amputations in those same counties to this day. The Tuskegee syphilis study famously administered syphilis to black men without their consent, subsequently denying them treatment for the disease. In Puerto Rico, low-income women died while participating in early testing of the birth control pill; as the Washington Post notes, no autopsies were conducted to see if their deaths were linked to the drug, “which was given in much higher doses than it is today.”
These abuses extend far past these examples and are not tangential to conversations about the viability and popularity of a future COVID-19 vaccine. By omitting it, news publications elide the basic fact that there are some American histories that are not shared, and that continue to shape people’s lives and perceptions in the present.
Lifehacker’s Beth Skwarecki also wisely cautioned against interpreting this reporting as being explicitly anti-vaccine—noting that being uncertain about being a “guinea pig” is a legitimate concern “unique to brand new vaccines,” and shouldn’t necessarily be compared to other, long-established vaccines, like the one for measles.
“The reasons for being skeptical here overlap with vaccine hesitancy as we know it,” she tweeted, “but they’re not the same.”
With the path to finding a COVID-19 vaccine likely to last months, if not well over a year, it’s important that our coverage of this issue consider America’s divided, racialized history when it comes to medical interventions. Anything else is a disservice, shrouding the American public from its own fraught, complicated medical history.