In March, we crossed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, during a year unlike any other, resulted in a staggering 500,000 deaths in the United States alone. After reaching this milestone, we are faced with alarming statistics of not only the stark losses of life but also of those that reveal the Black community in America has been disproportionately affected during this year of crisis.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Black or African American persons are twice as likely as their white or Asian counterparts to be hospitalized or pass away due to COVID-related symptoms. These statistics further point to the existence of an American social predicament which allows for significant disparities in the availability of social programs and adequate health care for many in Black communities.
This information points to the necessity of larger numbers of African Americans urgently needing COVID-19 vaccination. With the advent of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, people can now be protected against contracting the virus (or have a significant reduction in the severity of symptoms). These vaccines could bring significant relief to the crisis for the Black community. But despite being the most affected by the virus, and most in need of vaccination, members of the Black community are disproportionately underrepresented in instances of vaccination. While some 20% of the U.S. population has received some form of vaccination, Black or African American persons only make up 7% of that number, according to recent data from the CDC.
So why aren’t members of the Black community running to the front of the line to get vaccinated? One contributing factor is rooted in a longstanding Black collective mistrust of healthcare institutions because of a history of dubious medical practices that resulted in inadequate medical treatment, misuse of Black bodies, and misinformation in Black spaces. The relationship between the medical science community and the Black community is one fraught with tension, implicit bias, and suspicion, often coming from both directions.
One of the most glaring instances of medical deception towards the Black community occurred in Alabama during the “ethically unjustified” 40-year-long experiment known as the Tuskegee Study. From 1932 until its public exposure by the Associated Press in 1972, the Public Health Service–which preceded the CDC–conducted a study on 600 Black men under the guise of treatment for vaguely described diagnoses. The study lacked informed consent from the participants, as they believed they were being given legitimate treatments for illnesses. In reality, those treatments were purposely withheld from these men as scientists observed the long term, natural effects of syphilis on their bodies.
With the last surviving member of the Tuskegee Study passing recently in 2004, the legacy of Tuskegee remains burned into the Black consciousness and still influences the present-day medical choices of many. Add this to current statistics of high numbers of instances of medical malpractice experienced by Black Americans, and a perceived indifference toward the complaints of Black patients concerning healthcare, and the lack of investment into vaccination sites and resources in predominantly Black neighborhoods, many African Americans are left without sufficient options for vaccination. Worse, many end up thinking that it would be more beneficial and health conscious to not receive the COVID-19 vaccination at all.
So, what then can be done to aid a community in crisis? This answer is rooted in the longstanding Black collective trust and veneration of the Church as a community presence and institution. It is the Church that is left with the responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus toward a community in need. The Church has in past times been the answer to the issues plaguing the Black community and must be that answer once again.
From serving as temporary hospitals during the Black Plague to being gathering centers for social justice meetings during the Civil Rights Era, churches have often been galvanizing hubs to help people receive information and care. The Church very often serves as the center of Black social life in America where many get not only their direction for faith, but also their teaching on initiatives in politics, education and healthcare, with politicians, activists and medical professionals often turning to the Church to utilize their platforms to distribute information directly to congregants.
As the pandemic persists, it might once again fall on the Church to help spread truth and assuage fears in the Black community if there is hope for their getting vaccinated at higher rates. Churches can act as vaccination sites in typically low-income or Black neighborhoods. They can host information forums where medical professionals answer questions for congregants; and church leaders themselves can model the vaccine’s safety by receiving it.
To follow the call of the Bible to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17), the Church must be an active voice in ensuring that members of marginalized groups are receiving the care and information needed to be protected in a crisis. While many members of the Black community mistrust medical institutions, they retain trust in the Church, so the Church must honor that trust and help guide people out of this unprecedented trial.