‘Tuskegee Effect’ a Root Cause in Suspicion of COVID-19 Vaccine Among Black Americans

Tags: Currents Brooklyn, NY, Coronavirus, COVID Relief Bill, covid testing, COVID VACCINE, Crux, Eric Adams, Media, Racial Violence, Racism, World News

By Jessica Easthope

It’s a shameful and lasting legacy decades in the making: the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, one of the most prominent but certainly not the only example of unethical studies on people of color.

“Historically, they have been vulnerable and taken advantage of in research and science,” said Harlem Gunness, the Director of Public Health at St. John’s University.

In 1932, hundreds of black men with latent syphilis were lied to, lured into an ongoing government-led study with the promise of free health care. Instead they were used and abused by medical professionals, never told about their diagnosis or treated — even after medicines had been discovered.

So is it any wonder that today, in the midst of a global health crisis, there’s a lack of trust that’s proving deadly?

Black Americans are dying at nearly three times the rate as their white counterparts and getting infected at three times the rate – but only 38% of black adults are likely to want the vaccine compared to nearly half of all American adults.

For the last year, Harlem Gunness has been studying the effects of the pandemic on communities of color.

“Throughout history we’re also seeing similarities with the disparities of the infection, and we’re also seeing similarities with the disparities in its perception. So history is repeating itself all over again,” said Harlem.

That history has led to misconceptions and mistrust. It’s known as “the Tuskegee Effect.”

“The vaccine has a microchip where they can track you, the vaccine was made to get rid of our people — these are some of the misconceptions they have,” Harlem told Currents News.

This time around government officials are determined to not let that happen again.

“We just injected over 900,000 people. If you go to the city and state and say. ‘How many of them are Black and brown? How many of them are New Yorkers?’ We have it but it’s on a hard form, that’s unacceptable,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

One way to combat those notions is with facts and information, which is why Eric joined city leaders in demanding a digital database that shows the disparities in vaccine access and distribution be created.

“We should have been on the ground, using credible messengers, faith-based institutions, leaders in the communities and saying. ‘How should we be communicating to this constituency about their reluctance to take the vaccine,” he said.

At St. Martin de Porres parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pastor Father Alonzo Cox is in a unique position of influence.

“I think if the vaccination is going to help slow the spread or even stop the spread of this virus, I think that would be the best interest for this parish community and for all of us as brothers and sisters are to be able to make sure that we are safe and that we’re healthy,” Father Cox said.

But the sins of the past still linger in the minds of many. At St. Matthew’s Parish in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, pastor Father Frank Black says his own skepticism is preventing him from telling his parishioners outright they need the vaccine.

“I can’t tell them to get it because I’m not sure if it’s safe. All I can say is I’m going to take the chance and get it when I can, and you know what? I invite everybody else to take that chance too,” Father Black said.

This Black History Month, the painful lessons of the past are shedding light on why communities of color are hesitant to accept the vaccine, proving that righting wrongs like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment are still very much part of this community’s future.