Washington, D.C. — I learned my first lessons about injustice and health growing up in segregated Bennettsville, South Carolina. I remember being awakened in the middle of the night after a Black migrant family’s car collided with a white truck driver’s vehicle on the highway in front of our church parsonage, and the horror I felt when my Daddy, siblings and I witnessed the white ambulance driver and attendant arrive on the scene only to leave behind the seriously injured Black migrant workers after they saw that the two white drivers were not hurt. I also remember my parents’ and church members’ sadness over the senseless death of little Johnny Harrington, who lived three houses down from our church parsonage and who died after he stepped on a rusted nail because his hard-working grandmother didn’t know about the need for or have the money for him to get a tetanus shot. The sorrow and outrage I felt as a child helped shape my life’s work. Way before and through the Civil Rights Movement it was always clear that health care was one of the basic rights for which we were fighting because it could mean life or death.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the life or death consequences of our nation’s enduring health disparities on full display. Black, Latino and Native Americans and low-income white families, including children, are getting sick and dying at disproportionate rates. Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, making sure communities of color have ready and equitable access to them is critical. And despite a dark history of past mistreatment and distrust in the health care system, Black and Brown communities must not let any untrue rumors or fears about vaccines today make these deadly disparities even worse. We must all do our part to educate ourselves and share the right facts.
A group of Black experts led by Dr. Thomas A. LaVeist, a medical sociologist and the dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University, and Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, a physician and the executive director of the American Public Health Association, published an op-ed in The New York Times sharing their own confidence in the research showing the available vaccines are safe and effective. They write: “We are among 60 Black members of the National Academy of Medicine, the premier health science organization in the United States. Together we are scientists, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals and public health experts. We feel compelled to make the case that all Black Americans should get vaccinated to protect themselves from a pandemic that has disproportionately killed them at a rate 1.5 times as high as white Americans in cases in which race is known . . . Disinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines has pervaded social media, feeding on long-held and absolutely warranted distrust of health institutions in Black communities. The lies are an assault on our people, and it threatens to destroy us.”
They note Black scientists helped develop and test these vaccines, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, the leading immunologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who worked on the Moderna vaccine. Dr. Corbett said recently: “I have studied health disparities since I was in college. I’m a double major in sociology. I understand the intricate interlacing of science and health, particularly for disparities, and particularly for people of color. So it’s near and dear to my heart. It’s actually the reason vaccine development is important to me and is where I chose to take my viral-immunology career. Vaccines have the potential to be the equalizer of health disparities, especially around infectious diseases. I could never sleep at night if I developed anything — if any product of my science came out — and it did not equally benefit the people that look like me. Period.”
Experts like these are valuable sources of information for our communities, adding to the messages from Dr. Anthony Fauci and other trusted voices. Organizations like the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, whose allied health, academic, civic, civil rights and faith organizations include the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Urban League, the Links, the National Pan-Hellenic Council of the “Divine Nine” historically Black Greek organizations, the National Black Nurses Association, all four historically Black medical schools and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are doing their part to share the most up-to-date science-based information and address questions and concerns. Congregations, community leaders and others are joining in.
Please be sure you and your family seek out sources you trust to answer any questions you have. We all need to be fully informed and armed for this latest life or death fight.