Several weeks ago, I told my colleagues I had a confession to make.
As news of Pfizer and Moderna’s successful vaccine trials offered the first glimpse of light at the end of the dark tunnel of 2020, my colleagues asked whether I thought skepticism of vaccines in communities of color, particularly Black communities, would be an issue that the government needs a strategy for.
I hesitated, then spoke honestly: I didn’t know a single Black person who was enthusiastic about being vaccinated, and I had some skepticism of my own.
Polling data shows that voters of color are indeed more distrustful of the COVID-19 vaccine than the general public. Thirty-nine percent of Black voters and 45% of Latino voters in New Jersey say they would disagree to be vaccinated at this time. Nonwhite Democrats are three times as likely to say they would disagree to be vaccinated as white Democrats.
Where do these concerns come from?
At least in part, it’s due to what some writers have termed medical racism — a legacy of distrust built over generations of mistreatment of Black and brown bodies by the U.S. government and the medical community.
‘At the collision of two pandemics’
In the words of Dr. Chris Pernell, a public health physician in Newark: “We are at the collision of two pandemics, one fast and one slow. The fast one is coronavirus … The slow one is systemic racism, which has been with us for over 400 years.”
Now, with the first vaccine already approved, these questions aren’t hypothetical. Black and brown New Jerseyans will soon be faced with deciding whether or not to take this vaccine.
I’ve thought long and hard about this. I’ve looked at data that has been released thus far. And I’m proud to be part of a group of New Jersey leaders of color who are speaking out about our commitment to taking the vaccine as soon as we are eligible (and for me personally, as soon as it’s recommended for pregnant women). The group includes — among others — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Councilman Anibal Ramos, state Sen. Troy Singleton, Passaic County Freeholder Theodore Best, Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp, and Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter of Saint James AME Church.
“The distrust of the medical community is rooted in very real and terrible history, but our community faces a serious dilemma. We are the most likely to contract and even die from this virus,” said Mayor Baraka. “That is why we are instituting an information campaign that will provide our residents with data and facts about the vaccine and how it can help save lives and protect our families. And when the vaccine becomes available, I will be in line to take it when my time comes.”
Councilman Ramos, who is also the director of the Essex County Department of Senior Services, said he is working closely with the county and city on setting the infrastructure for distributing the vaccine to vulnerable populations. His father, who is in a nursing home, had COVID-19 and survived.
“We have a lot of work to do to educate the community about the vaccine,” Ramos said. “That’s definitely a challenge if we are trying to end this pandemic. I’ve talked to my doctors, and I’ve done a lot of research on the topic of the COVID-19 vaccine. The minute it becomes available, I plan to take it.”
Mayor Baraka and Councilman Ramos are right to invest in a public information campaign. Building trust will require a focused effort that incorporates voices we trust across racial and ethnic communities. We need a focused effort in every state to engage with trusted faith leaders, community activists, and other institutions with access to residents.
“This pandemic has had an especially devastating effect on the African-American community. People of color have been hospitalized at higher rates than whites, and tragically, have experienced higher mortality rates,” added Sen. Singleton. “I will definitely look to receive the vaccine with confidence, as soon as it is available to me based on the priority of distribution laid out by scientists and public health officials.”
Rev. Dr. Slaughter recently dedicated a sermon to the vaccine and the fact that Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett — one of the lead COVID-19 vaccine researchers at the National Institutes of Health — is a Black woman.
“The lead scientist is a person of color, which has done a lot to move the needle for me,” said Rev. Dr. Slaughter. “This vaccine, along with our faith, may be the only weapon we have against this virus to save people’s lives.”
In every community, leaders will need to engage faith and civic leaders like Rev. Dr. Slaughter to convince skeptics that taking this vaccine is in their best interest and their communities’ interest.
As Mayor Mapp said, “It would be a mistake if more members of communities across our state opt out of taking the vaccine.”
Looking to scientists, data
As Americans of color, we need to keep an open mind about this vaccine. Our skepticism of the medical community isn’t wrong — history has proven that medicine can be used as a tool of white dominance over subjugated peoples. But here, in 2020, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to listen to the scientists, look at the data, and decide whether this vaccine is safe on the merits, not the past. We can’t allow this virus to continue to devastate our communities.
In Freeholder Best’s words: “As leaders, we must set an example and ensure that our communities are not left out.”
That’s what we are committing to doing, and we hope others will join us.