‘Can’t believe what you say because I see what you do’ –Why Black people do not trust the COVID-19 vaccine.

I want to point out that I am not trying to change anyone’s opinion on the vaccine. The intention of this article is to gain more of an understanding as to why black people seem more hesitant to take Pfizer’s vaccine in the UK.

Whether you are pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine, or somewhere in-between… the aim of this article is for us to understand why there is a large amount of people in our community who are against the COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccine begins to be rolled out across Britain, starting with over-70’s and those from ‘Black Asian and Minority Ethnic’ communities, both online and through protesting, we have seen an increase in anti-vaxxers. Some believe it is a ‘plandemic’ to enforce a police state, whereas others believe that COVID-19 is real, but that the vaccine is harmful, and we are not being told all that we need to know. This rhetoric is laced with the idea of freedom and rights. On the other hand, pro-vaxxers argue that anti-vaxxers are entitled conspiracy theorists who just want something to complain about.

However, when focusing on the black anti-vaxxers, it is far more complex. Before we get another Tory MP blame an increase of cases on ‘the BAME community’ (I want to emphasis here that this is the same community that is disproportionately impacted by the virus), we need to recognise the validity of their anxiety and panic around the virus. This rebel against the vaccine does not emerge out of nowhere. It descends from longstanding racial bias, institutional racism and discrimination across institutions, namely in healthcare, government and science, stemming back to slavery, pseudo-science, colonialism, and eugenics.

Racial discrimination in UK healthcare

Not only is there a lack of representation across powerful institutions in Britain, leading to an increase in distrust in our healthcare system, there is also a history of racial bias and discrimination against black people in our healthcare system. This is portrayed in various ways such as lack of access, lack of choice, prejudice and disrespect. One example of this mistreatment is through pregnancy and childbirth. Several studies suggest that Black women experience more pregnancy loss. Despite the argument that this is due to socioeconomic factors, the statistics are still true amongst black women from richer socioeconomic backgrounds. Overall, white women will receive more effective medical care and social service assistance than Black women. The structural racism is undeniable. Furthermore, Black people are less likely to go the GP or Hospital compared to their white counterparts. Nevertheless those who do go, are at risk of not getting effective treatment they deserve.

‘if a patient’s cultural, social and religious needs are not scrupulously considered, these will inevitably affect his reactions and may exacerbate his symptoms’ (Blofeld, 2003:23)

History of abuse: pseudo science and experiments

Colonialism was instilled as a moral compass not only through slavery and imagery, but through pseudo-science, labelling Blacks as savage, irrational creatures that need to be governed like animals. In the 1700-1800s, Naturalist Georges Cuvier and likeminded individuals justified these ideas further through human zoo displays across Europe, exhibiting black subgroups like artifacts such as the pygmies and south African tribes, then dissecting their bodies posthumously, coming up with detailed theories on their barbarism. In fact, the highly honoured scientist Charles Darwin created the hierarchy of races in ‘The Descent Of Man’, which became the backbone of biology, anthropology and race studies during the enlightenment age. These are the same ideas that influenced eugenics, and ideas that can be found in Hitlers ideology around race and hierarchy.

Post-slavery, this ideology continued across western society. For example, the Tuskegee Syphilis trials in America, where unethical clinical trials were set up, exploiting black bodies. Black men in Alabama were tricked into having free blood tests. However those who signed up were part of a study analysing the effects of untreated syphilis. These trials lasted up until 1972. Many were left to die and went blind without any treatment. In summary they were treated as disposable, as less valuable than white bodies. 

One of the most important quotes to understand our society and how it has become what it is today is from Isaac Newton, ‘We are standing on the shoulders of giants’. It’s like the butterfly effect, everything that happened in our society’s past; wars, divides, events, politics, economic – all are part of the building blocks of today’s society – it has shaped us. Further, we can argue that these building blocks influence our social classification, who we are, who ‘they’ are, what are purpose is, what their purpose is. Undoubtedly out of this comes prejudice and further, discrimination. We are not exempt from the norms and values of the past – the pseudo-science of the past may have developed through modern science into more valid research, but it still has further to go. Deep rooted complex bias needs to be tackled.

Civil Rights Movement 2020

Hart & Henn’s (2017) research on political participation in the UK highlighted and ever growing gap between politics and the younger generations due to lack of trust and lack of access. Moreover the increased individualism of our neoliberal, consumerist, free-for-all society has increased the gap between us and the government. The way our government has dealt with issues like the financial crisis, Grenfell fire, Windrush enquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter Movement has further increased the lack of trust and importance of government for people in the UK, particularly those who suffer from inequality, such as the Black community.

The recent influx in civil rights movements worldwide has encouraged us all to keep learning about identity politics and intersectionality’s. This has opened a huge discussion on what our state apparatus in teaching us and the dynamics within it.  For example, the education curriculum in the UK has been criticised heavily this year for not teaching us ‘the full story’ of our shared history, justifying the false idea that we are in a ‘post-racial’ society, where race no longer influences our experiences and opportunities. Consequently, many do not trust what they are told by any institutions, despite any kind of validity.

‘Can’t believe what you say because I see what you’ – James Baldwin.

There are several lessons we can gather from this discussion, to name them all would be an article in itself. There is so much more community work and difficult conversations that need to be had across institutions and communities.  We need to build a stronger, more effective healthcare system, with more diversity within the powerful, decision-making roles. If our government wants less chaos, divides and confusion, it needs to reform its approach into a more mindful, informative and honest institution. Further, a more honest and accountable education system has the potential to rebuild trust between communities.