By Dr. Sharon Kelly West –
February is Heart Health month, and Black History Month, but I must give voice to what I am witnessing in this fight against Covid.
We have all read and heard comments about Covid-19 and the Black community such as:
“Why are Black people hesitant to accept the vaccine?”
“Why should I be made to feel guilty about getting the vaccine? Lots of Black people are feeling a distrust of the vaccine? I [a White person] trust it.”
“Black people ought to just get over the past.”
Can we talk?
I am not the voice for all Black people, but as one Black person, I recommend that we not misinterpret silence or a hesitancy to act as being unconcerned, indifferent, or ignorant. The national culture tends to expect communities of color to conform to a White norm without questions. If there is pushback to “buy-in” or compliance, the default rationale tends to be “this person is non-compliant,” “difficult,” “angry,” “uneducated,” or “holding a grudge.”
I would liken this unto the concept of Hospice Care. Hospice is an excellent concept (not a place, but a concept) with caring, knowledgeable staff in the field of end-of-life care. Yet Hospice care is still met with reservations among many Black and Brown people. Why is this?
Here is a response I have heard most from people of color: “Why are you so concerned about me having a ‘good death’ when you have not been very engaged in me having a good life?”
Might I bring this to the Covid vaccine situation? “Why are you so engaged in my getting this vaccine when you have not been fully invested nor vocal in my wellness to prevent me from being punted into this high-risk category of historical inequalities targeting Black and Brown people? Why are the quality chasms between Black and White people so wide? Why are Black babies dying before one year of age in Buncombe County at four times that of White babies? Why are Black mothers dying at 240% higher than White mothers soon after giving birth in the US? Why are Black people dying of renal disease at five times that of White people in the US? Why is there statistically significant hesitancy to refer Black people to medical specialists as compared to White people with the same illness? And why is it that black people make up 13% of the US population yet 40% of the prison population?
FACT: The “system” is not broken; the system is working as it was originally intentioned. It was never intended to be inclusive of Black and Brown people.
There is little need for what feels like coercion—and perhaps a tad of shaming—of Black and Brown people into getting the vaccine sooner than later. All we ask is for transparency and dissemination of accurate information with all timeliness so we can make decisions that align with our values, beliefs, and what we hold to be true.
MESSAGE: Be present. Black and Brown people are fully equipped to make decisions that are in the best interest for them and their families. Go beyond the walls to provide answers to questions. Customize vaccination administration to make it available for multi-generational family units with transportation challenges.
FACT: Efforts to engage the Black community are not new. In 1915, the National Negro Health Week was started at Tuskegee Institute. Nationwide, Black physicians came together to promote health and wellness among Black people after Booker T. Washington presented on the topic of Negro Wellness and the economic impact of poor health of Black people in the US.
Black doctors returned to their communities and shared information. Black nurses were front and center disseminating information far and wide.
MESSAGE: Medical institutions, hospitals, clinics, private practices, public health institutions, you must seek out Black and Brown doctors. Intentionally invite them to the tables of leadership and decision-making. Allow medical people of color to lead in community engagement—with no hidden agendas.
It takes a long time to gain trust and a short time to lose it. It wasn’t that long ago (1984) when mostly poor Black and Latinx families were enrolled in a study comparing two measles vaccines. The parents were not informed that one was an experimental injection that had not been approved during the consenting process.
In summary, Dr. Fauci and other top leaders in the fight against Covid-19 state that we need between 70% and 90% vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity. All of us are needed to support this level of protection, regardless of race, ethnicity. It is our duty. According to the Census Bureau, National Population Estimates, the US population is 63% White,16% Hispanic/Latino, 12% Black/African American, 7% American Indian and 4.7% Asian.
No one race can singlehandedly meet the herd immunity goal. We must work together as one nation. We can fight and win this together.
Key word: together.