Black Americans’ COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy? Blame Uncle Sam.

Chatting with a friend the other day we came upon the topic of vaccines. We discussed states’ differing approaches to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, when we thought our elderly relatives might receive it, and our hopes for getting the vaccine ourselves.

During our conversation, my friend mentioned that he heard Black Americans are less likely to say they will get the vaccine. He questioned why, particularly since Blacks and Hispanics have been more likely to suffer major adverse consequences from the virus.

Without a doubt, what he said is true. According to the CDC, Black people are 3.7x more likely than whites to be hospitalized as a result of COVID-19 and are 2.8x more likely to die. Hispanic or Latino Americans are similarly 2.8x more likely to die from the disease and 4.1x more likely to be hospitalized.

Blacks are indeed less likely to want the vaccine. A recent Pew Research poll found that while over 60 percent of white and Hispanic Americans would “definitely” or “probably” get a vaccine for COVID-19 today (if available), only 42 percent of Black Americans responded similarly.

The question then is this—why the contrast?

You don’t have to look hard to find an answer.

Black Americans have consistently received worse care in the U.S. medical system than white Americans. A quick Google search yields a multitude of cases. Consider tennis star Serena Williams’ harrowing experience after giving birth in 2018. Despite her history of blood clots, her healthcare team dismissed her alarming symptoms. It was only after Williams’ insistence on a CT scan that doctors discovered a potentially fatal blood clot. Music icon Beyonce’s birth of twins received similar attention. Like Williams, her care was also inadequate. They are not alone. Black women are 2-3x more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

But the blame doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the medical community. If we want to get at the root of vaccine hesitancy (and medical distrust more generally) among Black Americans, we need to take a long hard look at Uncle Sam. My coauthor Chris Coyne and I have written about a number of human rights abuses carried out against U.S. citizens by their own government. From testing biological agents to radiation experiments, the federal government has consistently abused several vulnerable populations, including communities of color.

Perhaps the best illustration of why many Black Americans are skeptical of the new vaccine can be summed up in a single word: Tuskegee. You know, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” report? The study where from 1932 to 1972 the United States Public Health Service failed to receive informed consent from its “participants”? The study where officials failed to offer Black men adequate treatment for their curable disease? (The cure for syphilis, penicillin, was developed in the late 1920s.) The study that resulted in a $10 million settlement and was paying out survivors and their families until 2009? Yes, that Tuskegee.

Given the long history of medical mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government and health professionals, it should come as no surprise that some Black Americans are a little more than reluctant to trust officials when they tell them the new COVID-19 vaccine is safe.

The U.S. government is now reaping what it’s long sown. The adverse consequences that will come from Black Americans refusing or delaying vaccination are tragic and unsurprising. They are an unintended, though predictable, outcome of decades of government mistreatment.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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