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African Americans’ Mistrust Of The Health Care System Could Affect COVID-19 Recovery

Obi Onyeador

African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of whites but they are half as likely as whites to take a vaccine.

That is just one of the findings from a survey on race and health conducted jointly by the Kaiser Family Foundation and ESPN. It reveals African Americans’ distrust of doctors and the health care system, and it documents the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans.

Survey author Liz Hamel says historic abuse continues to foster African Americans’ sense of alienation. “Often, you hear references back to the horrible experiences of the Tuskegee experiment where black people were treated very poorly by the health care system and used as test subjects and guinea pigs.”

The Tuskegee experiment is the first thing Charlotte photographer Alvin Jacobs thinks of when the COVID-19 vaccine is mentioned. Jacobs, who is Black, doesn’t plan to take a vaccine.

“If you look at something that’s as easily researched as the Tuskegee experiment, under the guise of a vaccine … Black men specifically were given syphilis" he said. "This was a governmental decision that was made to disproportionately affect members of the African American community.”

“African Americans won’t trust anything that comes from the U.S. government,” Jacobs continued. “If the vaccine came from another country or something like that, it would be a different conversation. … Yes, we’re being disproportionately affected, but you think we’re going to be guinea pigs? That’s not how it works.”

The survey also shows that 60% of Black people say they worry about contracting COVID-19 at work, compared to 46% of white people. And 51% of African Americans report they’ve lost a job or income because of the pandemic; 42% of white people say the same.

Almost a third (32%) of Black parents say the pandemic has had a major impact on their ability to care for their children; only 13% of white parents say the same, the survey found.

Two-thirds of African Americans believe the government response to the pandemic would have been stronger if COVID-19 was affecting white people at higher rates than people of color. And 70% think the health care system treats people unfairly because of their race, according to the survey.

Research shows bias is real, says Charlotte physician Ophelia Garmon-Brown. She points to a study of cardiologists which found that middle-class white men were more likely to receive treatment than middle-class Black men, even when both groups complain of the same heart attack symptoms.

Garmon-Brown, a member of North Carolina’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, says distrust of medical institutions is hampering scientists’ ability to recruit minorities to participate in vaccine development trials, even though a diverse group of subjects is necessary to ensure immunizations work for everyone.

She says the Advisory Committee is trying to figure out how to address African Americans’ reluctance to be vaccinated. “One of the things we’ve talked about clearly was that … we’ve got to engage the faith community because the health care community is so suspect that [assurances of vaccine safety] wouldn’t be believable.”

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Dana Miller Ervin is a reporter at WFAE, examining the U.S. health care system.