Opinion: Fight racism, get yourself vaccinated

Black Americans are three times as likely as whites to get COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it. Still, with the Delta variant on the march, Black vaccination rates remain lower than for whites. Why is that, and what can we do about it?

Black Americans are particularly vulnerable to the disease. They are more likely to live in crowded spaces, more likely to use public transportation and more likely to hold jobs in which working from home is not an option. Blacks are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions. This is due in part to the fact that many live in areas with more environmental toxins like lead.

The problem is not as severe in Kansas, for now. Here, Blacks make up 6% of the population and 5% of COVID cases and deaths. However, the vaccination rate is lower — only 4% of vaccinated Kansans are Black. Neighboring Missouri paints a starker picture. On our eastern border, African Americans account for 25% of cases and 13% of deaths but only 9% of vaccinations and 11% of the population.

There are multiple causes for the low vaccination rate. Many people of color work at jobs with no paid sick leave or weekends. They are apprehensive about taking a day or more off without pay to recover from their final vaccine dose. Some live in communities with more locally owned stores and fewer of the national drug- and department-store chains where many vaccines are given. Black Americans are also more likely to lack health insurance. Although vaccinations are free for all, most uninsured do not benefit from the advice and care of a family doctor. There are also far too many stories of Black Americans’ concerns being dismissed or minimized by health care workers when they do reach out for care; this too needs to change.

And then, of course, there are the Tuskegee experiments. This notorious project was conducted from the 1930s to the 1970s. Black men with syphilis were recruited as subjects, most of whom were not given any treatment during their lifetimes, even though penicillin became a widespread, effective treatment during this period. Most suffered and many died as a result. The experiment’s morbid goal was to study the effects of the disease on the body after death, via autopsy. This horror was still going on in 1972, when Associated Press reporter Jean Heller broke the story. The experiments stopped shortly afterward. A legal settlement and formal apology came later, but the damage was already done.

There is a bitter irony here. Justifiably outraged, many Black Americans cite the Tuskegee studies to justify skepticism toward COVID vaccines and other medical care today. Yet the tragedy of this study is that the subjects were denied medical care after contracting syphilis naturally. Today, Black Americans face a different problem: Many lack equal access to health care. This is due mainly to higher rates of uninsured, and Medicaid expansion would help a lot. However, the COVID vaccine is different. Generally speaking, Blacks have the same access to the same vaccines that all other Americans get, at no cost. It would be a bitter irony indeed to refuse that lifesaving treatment to protest against a racist experiment, one in which health care was once withheld from Black Americans when they needed it.

Today’s decision is clear. Getting fully vaccinated is the best way to stand up for healthcare equality.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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