The racial inequities that have been brought into stark relief by the COVID-19 pandemic are again being made painfully apparent in the current phase of vaccine distribution.
The vast disparity in the number of Black people and white people in Kentucky who have received vaccines—less than 19,000 for the former, according to WFPL, compared to the nearly 380,000 white Kentucky residents who have gotten doses—is the latest indication of how structural racism continues to impact the lives of Black Americans in very real ways.
Though Black people’s historical experience of suffering harm in this country’s health system can be said to have influenced some degree of cultural distrust in the vaccine, that isn’t enough to explain the significant racial differences in vaccination that have shown up all across the country, which The Root has previously reported on.
To begin with, America’s embarrassingly limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccines helped contribute to the spotty rollout (the Biden administration has moved to address this issue by ordering a couple 100 million more doses).
But according to experts in Kentucky who spoke to WFPL, the federal government’s stratification of who should be first in line for inoculation due to that limited supply—specifically healthcare workers, K-12 educators, and people over 70—ended up cutting out Black people, especially in the Southern state where some of the worst legacies of American racism can be plainly seen.
White people are overrepresented and Black people are underrepresented in many healthcare fields, said T Gonzales, director of Louisville’s Center for Health Equity. Similarly, most K-12 teachers across the country are white.
The history of why those institutions are whiter than the general population stems from a legacy of racist policies including segregation and access to education to gain entry into those careers, Gonzales said.
Age is another barrier for Black Kentuckians in the quest for equitable vaccine access. In some west Louisville neighborhoods, the average life expectancy is less than 70 years old — the age prioritized for vaccine access, Gonzales said.
Across Jefferson County, residents live an average of 12 years longer on the east side of the city than on the west side. That’s resulted in a disproportionate number of residents in other parts of the county receiving vaccinations, compared to those living in west Louisville neighborhoods.
It’s grimly ironic that the lower life expectancy of Black people in America—the result of a miasma of issues including worse health outcomes and diminished access to affordable and culturally competent health care—has turned out to be one of the things now hampering Black Americans’ ability to get a life-saving vaccine.
The Biden administration says it is committed to improving equity in the continued vaccine rollout, beginning with the aforementioned ordering of enough doses for every American as well as ramping up the collection of race and ethnicity data in the vaccine distribution process, according to the New York Times. The White House has also established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to help guide its response to the pandemic which has disproportionately impacted people of color and other marginalized communities.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says the state is working to address the inequities in its vaccine rollout by supplying doses to local community health centers and placing pop-up vaccination sites in underserved communities.