Will we learn from Covid-19 and stop discriminatory health care practices?

What’s happening? Black Americans are the least willing to have a Covid-19 vaccine when one becomes available in the US, a Pew Research Center study suggests. Researchers surveyed 12,648 US adults and found 83% of English-speaking Asian Americans would “definitely or probably” have a vaccine if one were available today. This was echoed by 63% of white and 61% of Latinx respondents. Just 42% of African American respondents agreed, despite 71% of them telling researchers they knew somebody who had either died or been hospitalised because of Covid-19. Overall, 54% of respondents reported a similar experience.

Why does this matter? The above article demonstrates how discriminatory medical practices can impact entire economies, not just the victims of these actions. In order for the world to recover from Covid-19, vaccines need to be taken by the vast majority of populations. Yet, as the referenced study shows, there is substantial distrust of the medical community among the US’ Black population, and structural racism is still deeply entrenched in the US health care system.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how serious this is. Recent surveys show many Black people avoid seeing a doctor as they don’t feel they feel like their illness will be taken seriously and that they will be unfairly treated. The myth that Black people feel less pain is also, amazingly and shockingly, still held by some health care professionals.

Historically, Black people have also been exploited in highly unethical research practices in the US. For example, the Tuskegee study which left Black men with untreated syphilis, or James Marion Simms’ gynaecological experiments on enslaved Black women. There’s also the controversial case of Henrietta Lacks, who had cervical cancer cells taken without consent for medical research. Those cells are still being used to this day, most recently in the development of Covid-19 vaccines.

What can be done to build Black Americans’ confidence in Covid-19 vaccines? Just rolling them out to everyone may not be the answer according to Dr Flojaune Cofer, an epidemiologist and a senior director of policy at Los Angeles’ Public Health Advocates. This, she says, ignores the fact that Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations have suffered from Covid-19 disproportionately compared to white people. Offering them to Black people first will be perceived as experimentation, while targeting white people first will appear discriminatory, Cofer added.

It’s encouraging to see Barak Obama and Bill Clinton offer to televise their vaccinations. However, their influence will only go as far as people’s trust in the former presidents, both among the Black population and other vaccine sceptics. This too can be said of Dr Anthony Fauci, who is urging Black Americans to take vaccines by emphasising their safety. He has also highlighted that Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black woman and lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health, led a team of scientists working with Moderna to create its vaccine.

Perhaps, given the urgent desire to end the pandemic, Covid-19 will be the tipping point for change within the US medical community. Health care professionals will have to seek ways to reach out to communities that are most in need of vaccinations and find ways to build their trust, for example by employing “culturally competent” medical staff and ensuring that clinical trial data is thoroughly transparent.

More broadly, it’s also time for racism to be officially recognised as a public health issue and to start taking real action to address it, not just to encourage vaccinations, but for the good of the wider society and indeed the whole world.

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