Written by: Ifeanyi Ashiedu, Edited by: Sami Morse and Kathleen Navas
We all know about COVID-19. You know, the infectious disease that has been ravaging the world for over a year now? If you weren’t acquainted with the infectious disease, I’d be a little concerned, as information regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been plastered all over the news, social media, and the internet every day for, again, over a year now. As of June 21, 2021, there have been 601,000 deaths in the United States ALONE from the novel coronavirus, accounting for roughly 20 percent of COVID-19 related deaths globally.
Let’s delve deeper. Race and ethnicity are some of the biggest factors that come into play with regard to COVID-19 hospitalization rates and deaths. Marginalized communities have been more heavily impacted by the virus than their white counterparts, with Native Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanic or Latino Americans being 2.4, 2 , and 2.3 times more likely to die from this infectious disease, respectively. These high relative death rates can be traced back to a myriad of factors, including population density, available resources, and underlying health conditions, highlighting the vast inequality that exists within our country. Now, with vaccines currently available to the general population, another factor contributing to this race-based discrepancy may be hesitancy to get the vaccine, due to medical distrust rooted in the American Healthcare System’s ongoing treatment of marginalized communities.
While the currently available vaccines are trustworthy, the American Healthcare System has routinely victimized and taken advantage of minorities, creating an understandable atmosphere of distrust that needs addressing in any discussion of vaccine hesitancy. Consider the Tuskegee experiments. This experiment, spanning forty years from 1932 until 1972, recruited over 600 black men to observe the course of untreated syphilis infection. Throughout the experiment, its participants were not told if they had syphilis, any information about the study, or given proper treatment for the disease, even though an effective medicine was made publicly available in the 1940s. Ultimately, the Tuskegee experiments were genocidal, and are a microcosm of the American Healthcare System’s treatment of minority populations. Although Tuskegee isn’t the reason people are not getting vaccinated, it is a vivid example of how healthcare in America is undeniably racist, even today. Contemporarily, while the medical mistreatment of Black and Hispanic individuals may be less overt, it is still pervasive and impacts trust between these communities and healthcare professionals. On account of financial and geographical barriers, many Black and Brown people are denied healthcare and implicit bias plays a large role in the strained relationship between healthcare professionals and minority patients. Ultimately, modern healthcare does not treat marginalized communities at the same rate and effectiveness as White Americans, and this all contributes to vaccine hesitancy amongst marginalized communities.
Although racial minorities were underrepresented in the Phase 3 trials for Moderna and Pfizer, both companies reported racial/ethnic participant breakdown and attempted to diversify participants (see Table 1). Moderna even intentionally slowed vaccine trial enrollment to ensure minority representation, an important step in verifying safety and efficacy as well as securing minority trust. Despite adequate statistical data demonstrating safety and efficacy by race, a [shrinking] racial gap remains in vaccination, representative of the inherent privilege among those groups that lack this intergenerational trauma.
Although educating the general public on the intricacies of our immune system or how vaccines help prevent disease is important, addressing the structurally racist nature of American healthcare would have a much bigger impact. The United States government, public health professionals, and healthcare providers alike must do the hard work of fixing their relationship with marginalized communities. Not only is it imperative for them to understand the causes of vaccine hesitancy, but they must work to uproot the racist system that is currently in place, making way for more inclusive and holistic medical care. In order to achieve herd immunity for the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure equal treatment in our healthcare system for the future, this is the only viable path forward.
The opinions contained in this article reflect the viewpoints of those writing this column and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of Students vs Pandemics as an organization.
Results from ongoing research and the current understanding of COVID-19 are constantly evolving. This post contains information that was last researched on June 21, 2021.