As we see a convergence of Black History Month and the Herculean effort to disseminate the COVID-19 vaccine, we need to do more than recognize the historical contributions of African Americans in the country. We must take the opportunity to write a new chapter that chronicles a moment when the health of African Americans and other people of color are placed at the forefront of efforts to protect communities from the ravages of this pandemic.
Historically, the Black community’s mistrust of a biased and racist healthcare system is not something to be proud of. We have not fully healed from what happened in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama, where 600 Black men were recruited for “medical research” and given the promise of free healthcare. Following the mishandled and deadly Tuskegee Syphilis experiment that ended in 1972, we have had nearly five decades of Black men believing that they and their families shouldn’t trust modern healthcare.
This belief stoked the fire of an HIV outbreak in the 1990s which disproportionately ravaged this underserved population due to thoughts of “another Tuskegee.” The mistrust is real and it’s putting the most vulnerable in danger of further devastation.
Last year, we faced the biggest pandemic in world history, and still over half of the Black population is opposed to being vaccinated. Today, U.S Centers for Disease Control data reveals that Blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than whites and nearly twice as likely to die from it.
You see their faces. They are the hardcore essential workers. They work in frontline jobs in public transportation, housecleaning, construction, healthcare and the agriculture fields. The disparity in access to reliable transportation, childcare and paid time off are barriers to receiving vaccinations. They can’t stay home to shelter themselves and their families. Rather, they work hard for little pay to serve those who have the benefit of working from home while seeing their usual paycheck directly deposited in their bank account.
Our Black and Brown neighbors take a significant risk working the frontline and living in small, crowded spaces that render the notion of social distancing all but impossible. This is a population in despair that is feeling the brunt of a deadly pandemic.
We owe them.
At Alameda Health System, we care for these essential workers. We are here in Alameda, San Leandro, Oakland, Hayward, Newark and Eastmont — the cities that are home to Black, Brown and underserved communities. We lead in extending care, wellness and prevention to all.
As we ramp up vaccine distribution beyond essential healthcare workers, we need to put the Black and Brown communities at the front of the line, not in the back as the healthcare system has historically done. Let’s not create or overlook gaps in vaccination efforts and attempt to address them after the damage is done.
Let’s make sure that trusted community voices are at the table in Washington D.C., Sacramento and Oakland to ensure our efforts at equitable distribution of the vaccines are intentionally successful — not just hopeful.
Let’s make Black History Month 2021 the moment we begin to construct a legacy of trust that for all Americans — but particularly African Americans — means we do the right thing.