In recent weeks society has been diagnosing the racism embed in every facet our society through the Black Lives Matters movement. Collectively, we have begun opening people’s eyes, challenging, and calling into question, the systemic inequality our community faces.
And as the world joins the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine in a hurried attempt to get back to a new “normal”, yet again we are reminded of the complex veins of racism that are prevalent in medical institutions, practises and trials. This has also played out in the search for a vaccine, splitting our community into two: the antivaxxers and vaxxers.
YouGov recently conducted a survey of 1,663 people in Britain, on behalf of research group Centre for Countering Digital Hate and found that almost a third of people in the UK would not have a coronavirus vaccine or are not sure whether they would. How this plays out in the Black community is far more complex for a number of reasons.
Clinical trials are already taking place in the UK, USA, and Brazil, after a potential vaccine was developed at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, and earlier this month, the first clinical trial started in South Africa conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. This however has been a point of contention.
Throughout history, the Black community has been subject to inhumane scientific studies, from using slaves for medical experimentation, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and westerners running unethical vaccination trials in Africa to the detriment of their health and lives.
Past experience has built up an inherent distrust of the medical community within the Black population, and this was only further compounded by French researcher, Jean-Paul Mira’s, comments at the outset of the pandemic suggesting that research should be focused in Africa “where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation.” Again, stoking the narrative of exploiting poor disposable Black Africans to benefit the health of the white wealthy westerners.
It is a strong belief therefore, that Africa is again being used as a “testing lab” and “testing dump ground”, with researchers preying on and targeting poor Africans unaware of the risks and subject to a poor healthcare system.
Over in the UK there is suspicion that Black people are being targeted and put forward first for the vaccination by Government and GPs to be used as “guinea pigs” under the guise of falling into the vulnerable category. So, the fight against the pandemic is not just a medical one, it is an ethical and political fight too.
The distrust in the medical profession run deeps, with Black patients subject to an appallingly lower quality of healthcare and higher risk of mortality.
This is thanks to a whitewashed curriculum, and the lack of Black representation in medical literature leading to gap in knowledge around diagnosing Black patients. Racial bias is even present in medical literature published in 2017, with a textbook citing: “Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures. They believe suffering and pain are inevitable”. Further playing into the narrative of the “other” and Black people not feeling pain as much as other patients.
The latter perception is unsurprising when only 9% of black students who applied to study medicine at Oxford received an offer, compared to 22% for white students, creating a racial imbalance in medical academics and therefore diversity of thought and treatment.
Even when Black medics make it into the working world BME staff are more likely to experience harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, relatives or the public; experience harassment, bullying or abuse from staff; personally experience discrimination at work from a manager/team leader or other colleagues; enter a formal disciplinary process compared to white staff; and be appointed from shortlisting across all posts.
On top of that, figures released by NHS Digital in 2018 showed that Black doctors in the NHS are paid on average almost £10,000 a year less and black nurses £2,700 less than their white colleagues showing how Black people are undervalued in the medical profession.
In additional, systemic racism has led to an abundance of health problems in the Black community disproportionate to our white counterparts.
Why am I mentioning this?
It is so integral to the vaccine argument as throughout every step of the medical world and the Black community’s experience of it, the knock-on impact of inequality is felt. White doctors with unconscious bias, and who are taught to racially profile, not adequately set up to properly diagnose Black patients, and patients who therefore experience treatment unlike their white counterparts. Combine all of these factors and that is a recipe for distrust in medicine, and therefore vaccinations.
However, with the Black community four times more likely to die from COVID, as found by the Office of National Statistics, is it not integral that we take part in these trials that are affecting us unequally to ensure they are safe for us too?
Dr Larry Graham, a retired pulmonologist has commented on the importance of the Black community taking part in the vaccination trials saying: “Genetics related to racial differences make it essential that we be involved in broad-based and diverse clinical trials of medications and vaccines.
“The expanding discipline of pharmacogenetics has taught us that we may respond differently than other races to both medicines and vaccines. We must be sure it works in black folks. This can only be determined by our inclusion in the research-based trials of such vaccines.”
For the vaccination to work for our community, and to save us from the higher death rate that we are suffering it is argued that we should be taking part in the trials and getting the vaccine.
Now, I do not profess to know the answer, and that is a personal decision for each and every one of us. However, the facts are black and white. Vaccinations prevent up to 3 million deaths worldwide every year and since vaccines were introduced in the UK, diseases like smallpox, polio and tetanus that used to kill or disable millions of people are either gone or seen very rarely; other diseases like measles and diphtheria have been reduced by up to 99.9% .
Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill, has said that: “Vaccines help protect all of us from preventable outbreaks of infectious diseases like measles which can have devastating consequences.” Are there side effects, yes. But when the virus impacts us so disproportionately, should we not be investing in the safe discovery of a vaccine for our community?
Now, all I can do is to explore the facts and narrative which will allow you to make up your own judgement, but one thing is certain: during this pandemic trust in and between the government, medical and Black community must be addressed if we are to eliminate suspicion around medicine and find a COVID-19 vaccine that works for everyone.