Black Americans have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Yet we're also much less likely to take the vaccines.
In the District of Columbia, for example, Blacks account for 55% of all COVID-19 cases and 70% of all deaths, yet have received only 40% of vaccinations.
That pattern sadly reoccurs in state after state.
In its new figures, the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 43% of white Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, along with 54% of Asian-Americans and 32% of Hispanics. The number for Black Americans? Just 29%.
Put another way, white Americans are 1.5 times more likely to be vaccinated than Blacks. Closing this gap will require a tremendous effort in communities across the nation—and Black women have a major role to play.
Black Americans are succumbing to COVID-19 more readily than whites in part because we're more likely to work in jobs where social distancing is challenging or downright impossible. We work as caretakers in assisted-living facilities and group homes. We're bus drivers and restaurant workers. We work on the front lines at hospitals, often in custodial and clerical jobs.
Black Americans are also losing the battle against COVID-19 in higher numbers because we have poorer health. Many of the comorbidities that make COVID lethal—obesity and diabetes, for instance—afflict Black Americans in notable numbers. About 48% of Black Americans are living with clinical obesity, compared to just 33% of non-Hispanic whites. When compared to whites, Black Americans are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.
These are systemic challenges that deserve national attention, and abundant resources, long after the pandemic is over.
Today in the U.S., though, we have three vaccines available that are exceptionally effective in preventing death from COVID-19—and a surplus of all of them. So deaths from this virus are almost entirely preventable.
So what explains the lag in vaccine uptake? For many, structural barriers stand in the way. But we can't ignore vaccine hesitancy, which is deeply rooted in the Black community and reflects a kind of existential fear that arises from Black history.
Time and again, we hear Black Americans voice deep-seated mistrust in American medicine, drawing on the way we've been treated in the not-so-distant past.
Consider the story of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, her cancer cells were harvested without her consent after a biopsy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. These cell lines were cultured and subsequently used for medical research. They're still used today—and have proved invaluable to medical researchers. But the Lacks family was never compensated and wasn't even made aware of the cell line's existence until 1975.
Add this to all the ugly history from years long past and one sees why Black Americans might fear the COVID vaccines.
Of course, leaders and role models from within the Black community have risen to the challenge and spread the word that the vaccines will save Black lives. Black pastors, politicians, barbers, hairdressers—even stars from the NBA and the WNBA—have used the power of their voices to campaign against vaccine hesitancy.
Black nurses and physicians, too, have helped educate Black communities across the country about the vaccine.
This is constructive and has had an impact. But we think there's a key element that has not yet been marshaled in the cause: Black women.
Black mothers, Black grandmothers, Black aunts, Black teachers—figures of unique moral authority in the community—need to be enlisted. The medium, they say, is the message. We say, here, that the messenger is also the message. When the women you trust—the women who have raised you, fed you, sent you to school, and taught you right from wrong—address your concerns about the vaccines, your concerns should be addressed.
That's why equipping Black women with the tools they need to educate their families, friends and communities about the benefits of the vaccines is so important in the weeks and months ahead.