As the historic campaign to distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the country kicked off this week, many lawmakers, public health experts, and newsrooms across the country have paid special attention to Black Americans’ distrust in a coronavirus vaccine.
That distrust has been well-documented, as have its origins: American medicine has a long history of dismissing Black pain, turning away Black patients, and experimenting on Black bodies. The appeals to change African Americans’ attitudes toward the vaccine in recent weeks have acknowledged this history while also trying to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed. Last Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci spotlighted that the Moderna vaccine, soon to be endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration, was developed by a Black woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, in an effort to help win trust in the treatment among African Americans.
While actions like publicly taking the vaccine certainly help, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is trying to push Congress to go even further—urging lawmakers working on a last-minute stimulus package to fund grassroots organizations who will work directly with their communities to foster faith in the vaccine.
“That’s the only way this is going to work,” the congresswoman told The Root on Thursday.
But while the vaccine and the long-delayed stimulus package are at the forefront of many minds, Lee also emphasized that restoring African Americans’ trust in medical institutions cannot happen without attempting to restore trust in government itself—and thus require much more ambitious, and much more further-reaching, policies to undo a long history of racist policies. Black people have earned their skepticism of government institutions—and it will take more than a vaccine and a $600 check to rebuild what has been broken.
“We have to hit this on all fronts: policy, public education, funding priorities,” said Lee. “Because health disparities have been with us, especially in the Black community, from day one. And we’ve never had a full-blown funded strategy to address it.”
The first hurdle to clear is ensuring that this next stimulus package—which will be only the second Congress has passed since March—is equitable, and truly accounts for the disproportionate toll COVID-19 and the coronavirus recession has had on marginalized communities. For Lee, this means urging her colleagues to plug provisions from her Community Cares Act into the latest stimulus package, to ensure that local community and faith-based organizations are funded so they can do outreach necessary to stop the spread of the virus. This provision would train and pay community leaders—from healthcare workers to formerly incarcerated gang members—to educate their communities on vaccinations, as well as testing and contact tracing. Of particular concern to Lee is making sure that people who speak languages aside from English get the information they need to be safe.
This community-based and community-led effort is an essential step in ensuring the health and safety of marginalized communities, says Lee. She also points to the many Black-owned businesses that have shut down in the last year—“a large percentage [of which] will never come back.” Any equitable stimulus package must not only have a substantial relief check—or, “survival checks,” as she and other progressive Democrats have called them—but specific investment in minority-owned businesses, alongside enhanced unemployment compensation and rent relief.
“Eight million more people have fallen into the ranks of the poor,” Lee noted, with poverty rising the most for Black Americans.
This precarious position is precisely why convincing Americans across the country to get a COVID-19 vaccine is so important. Having an effective treatment won’t matter if people don’t take it, and if people don’t take the vaccine, infection rates are likely to stay high. This is terrible news for all Americans as hospitals are stretched to capacity, but it’s even worse news for African Americans, who have seen both higher infection rates and higher death rates take a tremendous toll on their communities.
But what cannot be lost in this conversation is that, even before the pandemic, Black Americans experienced a very different economy—and a different healthcare system—than the rest of America. African Americans have long faced higher rates of housing and food insecurity, along with higher unemployment rates. Black Americans are much more likely to incur medical debt, and accessing medical care has long been an issue in redlined neighborhoods, which were systemically disinvested from. Any policy that rectifies these problems, then, would have a much greater impact on Black communities than it would white ones.
This is part of the call Congressional lawmakers need to answer, Lee says.
“I think now we have to use this window of opportunity...to address systemic racism in our public health system,” she explained. “And we have to begin to repair the damage of the past.”
This can be done through comprehensive healthcare bills, like Lee’s Community Cares act and the “Anti-Racism in Public Health Act,” which Lee, along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced in September. This historic legislation would name systemic racism a public health crisis and charge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with researching how systemic racism impacts health and proposing solutions. Lee also referenced the Health Equity Act, which the Tri-Caucus—comprising the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus—has been working on since 2018.
Bills like these have seen increasing support in Congress, though a GOP-led Senate majority has denied these resolutions an honest chance at becoming law. If passed, however, they would present a massive shift in how the nation talks about and attempts to redress systemic racism. But the issue of rebuilding trust goes even deeper than healthcare. As a widely-referenced poll recently found, Black Americans who said the government could never or could only rarely be trusted to look after their interests were far more likely to say they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine. This doesn’t surprise Lee, a longtime public servant.
“We see systemic racism in every single policy. I mean, you can look at the wage gap, the wealth gap, the disparities in education and suspensions and mass incarceration and housing,” Lee said. “Certainly racism is, I always say, in the DNA of this country.”
Addressing racial equity is a charge that the incoming Biden-Harris administration will certainly need to take up, considering the role voters of color—specifically, Black voters—played in securing the ticket’s victory. But what is clear to Lee—as well as other policy experts and organizers—is that trust in the government can’t truly be rebuilt until institutional racism is addressed. This includes seriously taking up the issue of reparations.
Lee is one of 169 Democrats who have backed H.R. 40, which would authorize a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. She has also introduced her own bill committed to racial redress, H.R. 100, which would take the first step in properly acknowledging and memorializing the deliberate harm inflicted on generations of Black Americans.
“We’ve never had this day of reckoning in the United States as it relates to the historical context of systemic racism, tracing back to the middle passage,” said Lee, noting that more than 400 countries have done such public reckonings over their historical atrocities, including slavery and genocide campaigns. “This country has never done that.”
This acknowledgment, paired with comprehensive and substantial policies that center African Americans and other marginalized communities, is the path Lee believes will carry America toward the inclusivity it has always professed to strive for, but has never achieved—not in its electoral politics, not in its wealth distribution, not in its courts, and certainly not in its healthcare system.
“We have to put in historical context what we’re experiencing today before this country can move forward,” she said. “I think this truth-telling moment is upon us now.”