This Vaccination Rollout Is Going Exactly as Terribly as You Knew It Would

Black folks don’t trust the system because this is what it looks like when it works

A man speaks with a member of the National Guard after receiving a coronavirus vaccine in the parking lot of Six Flags on February 6, 2021 in Bowie, Maryland.
A man speaks with a member of the National Guard after receiving a coronavirus vaccine in the parking lot of Six Flags on February 6, 2021 in Bowie, Maryland. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

As far as the effort to vaccinate my Black ass goes, I don’t require much in the way of convincing. Whatever gets me back to some semblance of normal life — which in my case would be the ability to rap Cardi B’s “Up” out loud at a bar, party, or Walmart parking lot in the South maskless without fear of death — I’m down. But based on my text messages, conversations with select kinfolk, and surveying social media, others in my demo are going to need a wee bit more convincing.

In a New York Times op-ed released on Sunday, more than 60 Black members of the National Academy of Medicine pleaded with Black people to get vaccinated for Covid-19. “We feel compelled to make the case that all Black Americans should … protect themselves from a pandemic that has disproportionately killed them at a rate 1.5 times as high as white Americans … a rate that is most likely very conservative,” wrote Thomas A. LaVeist, PhD and Georges C. Benjamin, MD.

Their concern stems from the fear that disinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines have only worsened the “absolutely warranted distrust of health institutions in Black communities.” Of particular concern to the authors was a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that 43% of Black Americans were taking a “wait and see” approach to vaccination.

I understand the rush to get as many Black folks in the vaccine line as possible, but many of us have no idea what line to put our loved ones in.

The thing is, that’s in keeping with a December survey in which some 62% of Black Americans said they will probably or definitely get vaccinated against Covid-19. Whatever skepticism is out there, you can’t reduce it to racial lines: On the same day the Times op-ed was released, a new Axios/Ipsos poll found that 63% of U.S. adults say they have had or are likely to get the Covid-19 vaccine once it’s made available to them — virtually the same.

Those Black doctors, nurses, and scientists are right to be concerned about any further impact disinformation has on us — but as much as I’ve worried about some of us clinging to conspiracy theories like the vaccine containing a microchip that constitutes the “mark of the beast,” I wonder if it’s moot. One look at how Black people are faring trying to get the vaccine tells you that we’ve got more pressing concerns.

Kaiser’s news organization found that in all 23 states who have made their vaccination data available, White folks are getting vaccinated at double the rate (or more) of Black folks. Disinformation might play a role in that, but the greatest fault points to the continued failures by our government to take care of its citizens — especially its most vulnerable.

For starters, there aren’t many vaccines available to begin with.

“We thought they had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available,” President Biden said in his Super Bowl game-day interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell when asked about one of his immediate disappointments upon taking office. “And it didn’t turn out to be the case.”

To the new administration’s credit, they have taken steps to ramp up the number of doses sent to states, as well as placing orders for hundreds of millions of more doses, with the goal of reaching wide availability by spring. “I can tell you that things are going to get better as we get from February into March into April because the number of vaccine doses that will be available will increase substantially,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on NBC’s Meet the Press this week.

Whether these vaccines will be distributed in an equitable way remains to be seen.

In states like Massachusetts, those aged 75 and up can be vaccinated — but as Dr. Alister Martin has highlighted, in a Boston neighborhood like Roxbury, the life expectancy is 59. How many people will die because state officials here and elsewhere across the country don’t recognize the ingrained biases of their policies?

We need more to be mindful of the reality that while Americans are theoretically in this fight against Covid-19 together, we’re not all fighting on equal footing.

Last Friday, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow spoke with Dr. Jerry Abraham of Los Angeles’ Kedren Health clinic about how his team has managed to administer vaccines to more people in underserved communities by helping patients work around barriers like access to the internet or a car. Those efforts also included reaching out to Black and Brown health care workers who weren’t part of larger health care systems; Abraham understood their plight because his own clinic had been overlooked during initial distribution, and he’d had to call L.A. county for doses.

Is that a failure — or is it the system working exactly as it’s built to do? As Dr. Peter Hotez, director for the Center of Vaccine Development at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, wrote on Twitter: “We don’t really have a health system. We have hospital chains, Amazon Pharmacy, CVS-Aetna, Walgreens…and that’s why we can’t deliver vaccines. And if we do, why Black and Brown people are left out. It’s by design, courtesy of our US Congress and their lobbyists.”

No wonder this vaccination rollout reminds me of trying to get Beyoncé concert tickets on Ticketmaster.

I shouldn’t have to scroll through my timeline to roll my eyes about Gorilla Glue girl’s lawsuit (I have lifted her scalp in prayer, but I just don’t see the case happening for her), and just happen to see a sudden vaccination pop-up that perhaps my folks can go to. Or email sites in the middle of the night in vain. This doesn’t even include my friends and colleagues with older relatives who have to transport their loved ones to other counties to get vaccinated — or come up empty altogether thanks to a shortage.

I understand the rush to get as many Black folks in the vaccine line as possible, but many of us have no idea what line to put our loved ones in.

There is a reported PR campaign to push the vaccine envisioned to cost $1 billion, but we evidently have to wait a lil’ while longer for it to launch. “We have to have product available before we go out and encourage people to seek it,” Mark Weber, the federal health official charged with crafting the government’s Covid-19 advertising campaign, told Politico. “We’re not there yet.”

I don’t understand this strategy. Lack of available vaccines hasn’t stopped the internet and Fox News from stoking distrust. As much as I appreciate any New York Times op-ed that doesn’t make me want to curse people out, given only 5% of doctors in the U.S. are Black, wouldn’t it be a good idea to already have them and other Black people with actual sway in their communities spreading the good news that the vaccines work? They could at least hit up all the folks on Medicare! They have all of the info needed on the original Betty Wright demo, no? It shouldn’t take much convincing once more Black people realize the vaccines work so good that White folks are coming into non-White neighborhoods to get it.

The media has done plenty of work highlighting the hesitancy Black folks have about the vaccine — but not enough on how the rollout is giving us even more reasons to distrust the system.

Author of “I Can’t Date Jesus” and “I Don’t Want To Die Poor.” Houstonian.

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