It’s not just Tuskegee. Although this town is home to notable African-American experiences from the honorable Tuskegee Airmen to the legendary Tuskegee University, Tuskegee is often a moniker used to remind the Black community of the government-sanctioned deceit behind the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Over the years, there have been countless examples of deceit in science and medicine that have stoked the fires of mistrust among communities of color— from abusive skin experiments on prisoners in Pennsylvania (mostly men of color during the 1950s and 60s), to forced sterilizations of Black women in North Carolina from the late 1920s to 70s.
Author Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid reminds us that “…Tuskegee remains the iconic symbol of racialized medical abuse.” However,
“physicians, patients, and ethicists must also understand that acknowledging abuse and encouraging African Americans to participate in medical research are compatible goals.”
At the height of the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are reminded again of the treachery of scientific racism that has led to the demise of many family and community members. Amid a raging pandemic that has claimed so many BIPOC lives, we would be remiss to disregard the centuries of misdeeds and inhumane treatment in the name of science based on a misguided perception of BIPOC being "less than."
The ‘twindemics’ of racism and COVID-19 have revealed perpetual health inequities that have resulted in higher cases among Latinx communities and more deaths among Black communities throughout North Carolina and in Durham. Anecdotal evidence has surfaced that signals the harmful impact of implicit racial bias on the part of healthcare providers who are responsible for providing life-saving therapies and ensuring that patient concerns are not dismissed.
We desperately need more BIPOC representation in science and medicine, from participants in clinical trials to medical researchers to medical providers. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccine trials expressly aimed to include diverse trial participants. As a result, 37% of Moderna's participants and 30% of Pfizer’s participants in the Unites States. were non-white. BIPOC cannot afford to be left out of important research studies that can provide lifesaving treatment, nor should we want BIPOC to be the last group to utilize effective COVID-19 vaccines. One hallmark of advancing racial equity is increasing access to all opportunities to improve quality of life and health outcomes for all.
So, when BIPOC give the side eye when the question of the COVID-19 vaccine is raised, know that the history behind the skepticism is well-placed and real. The time for coercion in the name of science and medicine has ended, and informed consent must be applied as all people consider being a part of research studies today. COVID-19 vaccine should be accessible to anyone who needs and wants it, and most importantly for healthcare workers, first responders, and all who are on the front lines of keeping communities afloat.
Because we cannot vaccinate our way out of systemic racism, we must continue to respond to any threat to our civil liberties, including our right to informed consent. Clear and transparent information is necessary for everyone to understand and receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Outreach and communication from respected community leaders and data reporting by race and ethnicity to understand the pervasiveness of inequities towards vaccine roll out are important next steps. Public leaders should mitigate misinformation and utilize an equity approach in decision-making regarding vaccine roll out plans to help allay BIPOC fears stoked by mistrust.
It is often said that those who forget history are destined to repeat it. Let this moment in our current history be a lesson in how we honor the past and treat our BIPOC communities better.
Kweli Rashied-Henry is the racial equity officer for Durham County, North Carolina. She has over 20 years of experience in community public health, policy, and management with a focus on addressing systemic inequities. She is a member of the inaugural ICMA chief equity officer cohort launched in 2020.