Medical racism is to blame for vaccine scepticism among Communities of Colour

"Racism is a virus" BLM sign
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SAGE recently highlighted the issue of trust as a key factor contributing to high coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minority groups in the UK. According to a survey, 72% of Black respondents and 42% of Pakistani or Bangladeshi respondents stated they were unlikely or very unlikely to be vaccinated. This stands in stark contrast with 82% of all respondents saying they are likely or very likely take up the vaccine.

Though online misinformation is partly to blame, vaccine hesitancy among BAME communities is the result of a longer, darker history of racism in medicine and healthcare. From the birth of modern gynaecology to the birth control pill, much of western medicine was developed through the oppression, exploitation, and violation of Communities of Colour by white medical professionals. The impact of these abuses endures today.

Race and medical research

Ideas about racial difference were developed by English thinkers such as Francis Galton, who coined the name eugenics, and Herbert Spencer, a key proponent of social Darwinism. Their theories were used to justify the colonisation of indigenous populations, the enslavement of Africans, and unethical medical practices against people considered racially ‘different’.

“Father of modern gynaecology” James Marion Sims’ revolutionary procedures were developed through experiments on enslaved Black women. He didn’t seek consent from his patients, nor did he seek to relieve their pain during vivisections. Having “perfected” his surgical techniques, he went on to operate on white women. This time, he used anaesthesia. His decision was based on beliefs about Black people’s insensitivity to pain which persist today.

When Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, a physician took cells from the cancerous tumour and passed them on to a researcher. She wasn’t made aware of this, so couldn’t give consent. These were cultured into the HeLa “immortal” cell line which have informed medical breakthroughs including vaccines against polio, HPV (cervical cancer), and coronavirus.

From 1932, over 600 African American men in the rural town of Tuskegee were used as guinea pigs. Doctors wanted to see whether syphilis manifested itself in different ways if left untreated in Black bodies versus white bodies. Suffice to say, white men weren’t included in the experiment. Participants were told that they were being treated for “bad blood”. And they were encouraged to take part in exchange for free medical care. Doctors purposely left these men to deteriorate and die from the treatable disease. The study lasted for forty years. However, it came to a halt when journalist Jean Heller exposed the experiment in 1972.

Colonial subjects abroad

Imperial powers also looked to colonial subjects abroad to advance western medicine. American physicians travelled to Guatemala to test penicillin’s effectiveness. They did this by infecting local men, women, and children with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea. Puerto Rico was also used as a laboratory by US medics. Respected cancer researcher Cornelius Rhoads transplanted cancerous cells into the bodies of Puerto Rican patients in the name of research. Regarding his work in Puerto Rico, Rhoads said:

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What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. The latter has not resulted in any fatalities so far… The matter of consideration for the patients’ welfare plays no role here — in fact all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.

In a similar eugenicist vein, attempting to curtail reproduction among “undesirable” groups, American scientists tested the first contraceptive pill on Puerto Rican women without their knowledge. For more examples of medical imperialism, we could look to US microbiological studies in Haiti; medical killings across the African continent; French doctors wanting to test coronavirus vaccines in Africa. The list goes on.

Medicine today

Racial bias in pain assessment and medical treatment, based on false notions of racial difference, endures today. The under-representation of people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds in medical research, gaps in training on how to meet the health needs of non-white patients, disproportionate maternal mortality rates, and racial disparities in coronavirus deaths are all products of this history.

So we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Black and Brown anti-vaxxers. Because their distrust sits within a long, dark history of racist oppression and abuses of power. Though celebrities and community leaders are stepping up to dispel myths about the vaccine, it is the government’s responsibility to address and rectify the longstanding issue of mistrust and systematic racism in medicine and healthcare.

Featured image via John Cameron/Unsplash

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  • Show Comments
    1. “Though online misinformation is partly to blame [for vaccination reluctance]”. What ‘online misinformation’ are you referring to Sophia? If you’re meaning reports online that talk about the nasty side-effects of vaccination including fatalities – reports which can’t generally be heard on the BBC or found in the Guardian (or on the pages of ‘The Canary’ for that matter) – then you’re wrong to refer to it as “misinformation”. If you’re taking about widespread concern that the usual, long-term testing procedures for vaccines have been circumvented for the current vaccines, then that’s not misinformation either. If the BAME community take their time to research extensively before accepting the preaching of proven liars and quack profiteers, then they show remarkably good judgement in my opinion.

      1. Thank goodness, I agree with every word SteveMol. I’m becoming increasingly frustrated when even the Canary is wilfully avoiding stepping outside the official narrative of this entire covid/vaccination debacle .
        Sophia Purdy-Moore presents crucial historical information but loses all credibility by pushing the ‘online misinformation’ reason for ‘vaccine hesitancy’

      2. This article is complete nonsense, it is patronising and racist. So Bame men and women with “vaccine hesitancy” don’t do so due to sober and objective analysis but due to being victims. How about actually talking to some of these people and listening to what they have to say. Oh no, we can’t do that, that might destroy the narrative that the canary colludes in with the MSM whilst pretending to be alternative. The phrase Trojan horse comes to mind. So apparently the canary rejects the power of corporations but when these same blatantly profiteering companies come up with untested new vaccine technology we just have to bend over and take it. A friend posted this article on instagram, I was so shocked with the utter woke virtue signalling drivel being charaded as anti racist rhetoric i had to come make a comment. The article basically says BAME communities were mugged by big pharma in the past, don’t blame them that misinformation has made them not want to be mugged by exactly the same companies who we are suddenly expected to trust. Maybe they are “vaccine hesitant” because they can spot oppression when they see it, but this time the oppression isn’t rascist, it doesn’t care if you’re black, brown, white or from Venus, gay straight, male, female or trans- its here for us all. The Canary has lost the plot.

    2. Wow! How did we not know all this before? I can understand why they are hesitant.
      We criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians, yet all this has been happening in our backyard for a long time. Medical imperialism makes it sound acceptable.

    3. Great article! Lots of info that I wasn’t aware of before,
      Presumably the vaccine is generally a “good thing” and seems to be reducing morbidity and mortality from covid from the somewhat limited data so far. Limited in that we don’t yet know how effective it is going to be at reducing transmission or dealing with new mutations of the virus.
      However, these vaccines have been tested on uk volunteers, predominantly healthy white people. White people and old people are scrambling for jabs, the middle classes are frustrated because they have to wait, and can’t jump the queue by paying. Would that not suggest it is deemed to be safe? The side effects would seem to be very mild compared to the ones caused by Covid for some people. I think that I read somewhere that the risk of catching Covid was six times higher if from a black ethnic minority, and because of poorer chronic health management , risk of complications higher as well.
      How should local authorities, health authorities, healthcare professionals, government address this mistrust?
      I wanted answers!
      @chris mumble, I don’t know what MSM is apart from men who have sex with men which doesn’t seem to fit in your context. Also I understand that the vaccine companies are not making much money. from the vaccines, the Oxford one is being produced and distributed at cost price.

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