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The hotbed of vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans has a familiar name

Over the weekend, when we discussed the root causes for racial disparities showing up in the nation’s vaccination numbers, it was revealed that African-Americans appear to have a significantly higher rate of vaccine hesitancy than other racial groups. This has shown up in the numbers for more than a dozen states that collect and report such data, as well as in major cities including Philadelphia and Chicago. But one serious hotbed of mistrust of these new vaccines comes from deep in the south. The residents of Tuskegee, Alabama, a small city with a significant majority of Black residents, are staying away from the vaccination center in droves. And no matter what your feelings may be about vaccines in general, it’s hard to blame these folks for feeling some mistrust of the government. (Associated Press)

Lucenia Dunn spent the early days of the coronavirus pandemic encouraging people to wear masks and keep a safe distance from each other in Tuskegee, a mostly Black city where the government once used unsuspecting African American men as guinea pigs in a study of a sexually transmitted disease.

Now, the onetime mayor of the town immortalized as the home of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study” is wary of getting inoculated against COVID-19. Among other things, she’s suspicious of the government promoting a vaccine that was developed in record time when it can’t seem to conduct adequate virus testing or consistently provide quality rural health care.

“I’m not doing this vaccine right now. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to do it. But I know enough to withhold getting it until we see all that is involved,” said Dunn, who is Black.

Tuskegee isn’t much of a “city” in terms of its size. With a population of around 8,500, it would barely qualify as a village in many areas. But it’s famous for a few things, including one of the darker chapters in the history of the American government. For those not familiar with the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, from 1932 until 1977 (!) government medical personnel gave placebos to unsuspecting Black patients seeking treatment for syphilis. This was done so they could study the full course of the disease.

What it led to was long, lingering, and very painful illnesses and deaths among these patients. The United States government had essentially used part of the Black population of Tuskegee as laboratory rats. The project only ended after the media reported on it. In 1997, Bill Clinton offered a public apology to the people of Tuskegee, but neither that nor the comparatively meager nine million dollars awarded to some of the victims in a court settlement did much to assuage the resentment and mistrust.

People haven’t forgotten that. After all, 1977 wasn’t really all that long ago and there are many people still alive today who were around when the project was discovered and reported. And now, few are showing up to be jabbed in the arm with a syringe filled with a vaccine that many there say was developed too quickly and could be dangerous.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of resources online that support this fear and repeat claims of the vaccine being either flawed or, in some cases, part of a dangerous, secret government plot or experiment. The Nation of Islam has released a presentation titled, “Beyond Tuskegee: Why Black People Must Not Take The Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine.” And you can say what you will about Louis Farrakhan, but the man still draws a lot of eyeballs when he puts out a message.

Black Americans are already doing badly from the pandemic, with higher percentages of patients either dying or experiencing more serious symptoms. Explanations as to why vary, but the general consensus seems to be that people in economically disadvantaged communities generally have less access to good healthcare and therefore are frequently in worse health to start with, leaving them more vulnerable to the worst aspects of the disease. The last thing they need is to have significantly lower rates of immunity going forward.