The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has been a global crisis that almost no one saw coming. With an estimate of 96 million cases worldwide and over two million deaths, not a living soul can say that they haven’t been affected by the pandemic in some form or fashion. The United States accounts for around 400,000 deaths alone, with Black people having one of the highest death rates when compared to other groups. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to White, Non-Hispanic persons.
Alongside this is the fact that Black people in the United States are more likely to work jobs that are deemed “essential.” According to Healthcare Finance News, Black American employees account for 17% of essential jobs, some of which include “food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, police and protective services, personal care (for example, as childcare workers or hair stylists), office and administrative support, production (e.g. assemblers, painters or machinists), and social work and community services.” In other words, it isn’t a coincidence that COVID-19 deaths are higher amongst Black Americans — they’re putting their lives on the line everyday just to get by and take care of their families.
Now, with both Pfizer and Moderna having created vaccines to help save lives from the fatal virus, many people have a newly found hope that the pandemic can end and that life will finally return to normal. However, things are not as simple for the Black community. Due to centuries of medical racism and neglect, many Black folks are hesitant to take or even go near anything that resembles a vaccination. Though a vaccine is most likely the best bet in the fight against COVID-19, one must take a closer look at history to understand the Black Community’s continued hesitancy.
Due to the antiquated myth that Black people, especially Black women, are more immune to pain, history has often forced them to be the subjects of frequent experimentation and dehumanization. Looking to further their scientific research and understanding of the human anatomy, many physicians and scientists used Black bodies as their test subjects without their knowledge or consent. In the 19th century, J. Marion Sims, now referred to as “the father of modern gynecology,” often operated on and mutilated Black, enslaved women in order to further his research as well as perfect his surgical techniques.
Although experiments and surgeries on unconsenting individuals raises questions about ethics and morals in our current time, operating on enslaved people was seen as relatively normal back then. To make matters even more cruel, he often ran these invasive and painful surgeries without any form of anesthesia to numb his patients, despite it having been newly invented around that time. Since slaves were considered property and not people, they were at the mercy of their masters and held no bodily autonomy. Many slaveholders would often hand over Black women to Sims for him to examine and study them.
One of the most infamous and haunting examples of experimentation is the Tuskegee Experiment. In fact, the Tuskegee Experiment of the 1930s has often been stated as one of the top reasons as to why many Black people refuse to trust anything related to medicine or the pharmaceutical industry.
In the year 1932 the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was launched by the Public Health Service in partnership with the Tuskegee Institute to see how the effects of syphilis on Black men. Contrary to popular belief, none of the participants were actually injected with syphilis, but rather lied to about the severity of a disease they already had. Since the majority of the participants were poor farmers without formal education, they were simply told that they had “bad blood” and nothing more. Even when penicillin to treat the disease had become available in 1947, participants remained untreated and many of them eventually succumbed to the disease over the years.
Though some would argue that medical racism is a thing of the past because of more BIPOC entering the medicine, research has shown that the medical field still remains overwhelmingly white. A 2018 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges revealed that among active physicians, 56.2% were white, 17.1% were Asian, 5% were Black or African-American, and only 0.3% were American Indian or Alaska Native. The lack of color in the medical community has definitely manifested itself in how patients are treated as well as who is prioritized in terms of proper care.
Back in 2015, a study on implicit racial and ethnic bias found that when it came to issues concerning race, members of the medical community expressed the same biases and attitudes as the rest of the general population. Because of this, patients of color were not receiving the same level of care as their white counterparts. The report states, “The National Healthcare Disparities Report showed that White patients received better quality of care than Black American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian patients.” In other words, we still have miles to go before we can say that every patient is receiving a level of care that is fair and just.
To those who work in the medical profession, instead of judging or looking down on Black folks for what you see as “outdated views or ideas,” understand that our concerns and fears are rooted in trauma — trauma that we have experienced in the past and still are to this very day. It’s not a coincidence that a global pandemic has taken many of our lives by the thousands. There’s no way to simply brush off centuries of experiments, nonconsensual examinations, and being denied proper treatment because of negligence from nurses and physicians. In order for true progress to be made, more people must understand that our mistrust is purely based on what we have been through and still go through. Only then can we begin to heal and move forward.
About the Author:
Maryam Azeeza Muhammad is a poet, womanist, and journalism student from Bridgeport, CT currently attending Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.