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History has me hesitant about vaccine

Rev. Irene Monroe

Massachusetts hospitals are filling up again, like those across the country. Many of the patients are Black and Latinx Americans, the demographic groups disproportionately slammed by the coronavirus pandemic. The good news is that a vaccine is just weeks away from distribution. The troubling question is, will Blacks and Latinx Americans show up?

“I am not feeling this vaccine, and I’m certainly not feeling like being in the guinea pig phase,” Rev. Emmett Price shared with me on our podcast “All Rev’d Up.” Like many black ministers across the country, Price is not confident in telling his congregation to be the first in line for the vaccine.

Price’s skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine is not a lone voice. His reservations about the vaccine are derived from a history of hyper-experimentation on black bodies, intergenerational trauma as its result, and the continued health disparities that resonate to this day.

In recognizing the high levels of hesitancy among blacks to get vaccinated among her parishioners and the community at large, Rev. Liz Walker, the senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a former WBZ anchor, reached out to the country’s most trusted voice on the issue — Dr. Anthony Fauci. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On Nov. 26, Walker conducted a webinar titled “Where do we go from here? Coping in the next season of the COVID-19 pandemic,” where Dr. Fauci spoke to the Roxbury community. The webinar was part of The Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church.

Fauci recognized our distrust in the medical system but assured the audience that the speed of the vaccine does not compromise its safety nor scientific integrity. However, with concern, Fauci mentioned the lack of diversity in the clinical trials for the vaccine and wished more minorities were in them, stating “what’s safe and effective should not be only for whites.”

The presidents of Xavier University and Dillard University, HBCUs in Louisiana, volunteered for COVID-19 trials with the hopes of recruiting their students as a way to bridge the chasm between the black community and its distrust with the medical system.

However, no amount of money can assuage or erase the collective trauma of living the history of medical experimentation done on our bodies. It’s in our historical DNA.

Most African Americans, young and old, cannot shake off the Tuskegee Study, a clinical study conducted for four decades, between 1932-1972, to observe untreated syphilis on African American men under the guise they were receiving free health care. The Tuskegee Study’s deleterious effects on these men, their families, and their offspring have resulted in a lifelong hell of mental and health complications.

In 2018, a statue of J. Marion Sims, called the “father of gynecology,” erected in 1890, was removed from New York’s Central Park, finally. The statue stood across from the New York Academy of Medicine. Sims perfected his revolutionary tools like the vaginal speculum, a double-bladed surgical instrument used for examining the vagina and cervix, and other gynecological surgeries, on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia. “After perfecting the techniques on black enslaved women without anesthesia in America, Sims went on to offer the procedure in Europe to wealthy white women who were sedated,” USA Today reported.

Black people are not largely anti-vaxxers, but the high levels of hesitancy are understandable. To assist in shoring up confidence throughout the country to get vaccinated, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have volunteered to get theirs on camera.

I am asked constantly, will I get the covid-19 vaccine?  I demur, conveying that I don’t know yet. My spouse is an ER physician and will get vaccinated before me. She is my canary in a coal mine.

Irene Monroe is a theologian and news commentator.

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