Black Americans don’t trust a COVID-19 vaccine — they have valid reasons why
It’s been eight months since the first documented case of COVID-19 in the United States. Since then, the coronavirus has infected an estimated 8.4 million people and killed at least 220,000 Americans, with people of color and low-income families suffering the brunt of the illness or food insecurity. “Health disparities have always existed for the African-American community,” Dr. Anthony Fauci proclaimed in April, but the crisis shines “a bright light on how unacceptable that is.”
As the national conversation escalates over a possible vaccine, elected officials need to acknowledge and address another troubling disparity: widespread distrust in an eventual COVID-19 vaccine among Black Americans.
Less than half a century has passed since the U.S. government terminated its appalling, 40-year study of syphilis in Black American men, whom researchers misled from the start and who never received adequate treatment. The Tuskegee experiment is a dark chapter in our nation’s history, a scar that continues to weigh on the Black American community.
It’s also not an isolated incident. Black Americans have faced a long history of racism impacting the access and quality of the health care they receive. They are often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The racist myth that Black Americans could tolerate more pain still informs some modern medical education, and Black Americans still don’t receive equal care. Black American women continue to die from pregnancy-related causes more often than white women and receive worse care for depression after childbirth. Even the current vaccine trials have failed to overcome discrimination against Black Americans.
Trust in science and faith in government institutions is critical as we look to a future COVID vaccine. Third Way recently explored these issues in an online poll of 800 likely November 2020 voters in seven battleground states. While the vast majority (90 percent) of respondents overwhelmingly agree that vaccines are safe and effective against measles and other diseases, only 50 percent of Black Americans said they would be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 76 percent of whites and 74 percent of Latinos.
It’s disheartening but not surprising that Black Americans distrust government-led efforts to combat the coronavirus. We as advocates and lawmakers must understand the causes of this skepticism if we are to be effective messengers. And additional research is critically necessary to understand the sentiment of Black Americans specifically with respect to the coronavirus. Clearly, our government and our health officials must do more—quickly—to earn their trust.
Certain messages or validators may ultimately prove vital in increasing public trust in a vaccine. The survey found that, across all demographics, 26 percent said that they would probably, but not definitely, take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were widely available and offered for cheap or free. But among this group of “probables,” 28 percent said they would definitely take the vaccine if a federal public health agency says the usual rigorous vaccine trial process was followed, and 20 percent said the same if Fauci were to give his personal guarantee that the vaccine is safe and effective.
To truly make progress fighting back against this pandemic in the communities hit hardest, we must first make progress on increasing faith in science and trust in institutions. Without it, Black Americans will continue to suffer.
Jared DeWese is a Senior Communications Advisor at Third Way and David Kendall is the Senior Fellow for Health and Fiscal Policy at Third Way.