As the push to get Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 intensifies, one thing has become very clear: Systemic racism has put Black and Brown people at a disadvantage.
Communities of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic, with death rates far higher than those in white communities and economic losses far more devastating. And now, all available data indicates that Black and Brown Americans are not getting the vaccine as quickly as white Americans.
Why aren’t they getting their shots?
Shocking Racial Disparities
According to an analysis of the vaccine rollout so far, the US has collected racial and ethnic data on only about half of the doses given. But the numbers we do have are alarming:
- Black people make up 13.4% of the population, but have received only 5% of vaccine doses
- Similarly, Latinx people make up 18.5% of the population, but have received only 11% of vaccine doses
If a group of people is getting vaccinated at a rate below its share of the population, something is very wrong.
Like racial disparities in every other aspect of American society, racial disparities in healthcare are nothing new. But it’s unacceptable that the very communities hit hardest by the pandemic, the very communities who’ve done heroic service as frontline and healthcare workers throughout the past year, are now last in line when it comes to receiving the lifesaving vaccine.
Why Is This Happening?
White supremacy plays a big role. What do we mean? Well, even clinics that largely serve people of color are seeing wealthy white people take a disproportionate share of their vaccine supply. It’s also true that many of the big hospitals and chainstore pharmacies that have been distributing the vaccine so far are not located in Black and Brown communities. Those same communities often lack the kind of broadband internet access necessary for navigating complex healthcare websites and making appointments online. In other words, the same systemic racism that harms Black and Brown people in everyday life harms them here. While all Americans have encountered barriers to getting the vaccine, white Americans have not had to face the barriers caused by systemic racism.
All this can be frustrating for planners and activists who anticipated these disparities and actively worked to develop systems that would ensure Black and Brown have access to the vaccine. Local organizations, like Bread for the City in Washington, DC, are finding ways to overcome the systemic racism embedded in the distribution plans to ensure that they can actually serve their communities, but ultimately, local and state governments must do more. Very few states have vaccine education and distribution plans that prioritize or even target communities of color.
A History of Injustices
But there’s another, larger truth at play here too, one with origins in our earliest history: Many Black Americans do not trust the healthcare system, with good reason.
- Medical experiments were carried out on enslaved people.
- Old myths about Black physiology and biology persist among the white medical establishment to this day (e.g., how white doctors downplay the experience of pain by their Black patients).
- The Tuskegee Syphilis Study mistreated hundreds of deliberately uninformed Black men for 40 years, up until the 1970s.
- Black people still have less access to quality, affordable healthcare than white people.
The examples of racism in our healthcare system go on and on. After hundreds of years of exploitation and broken promises by the medical community, Black Americans’ wariness around the COVID-19 vaccine makes a lot of sense—which is why Black public figures and Black-led organizations are doing so much to reach out to Black communities and encourage them to trust the vaccine.
What We Can Do
Making sure the vaccine reaches our hardest hit communities is key to finally ending the pandemic. Failing to act is unacceptable.
Elected officials and policymakers need to get out into those communities, listen to the people, and learn about their concerns so that education and distribution plans can be improved and the vaccine rollout can finally be equitable.
We MUST make vaccinating Black and Brown Americans a national priority. Their lives and livelihoods depend on it. So does the health and wellbeing of the entire country. Learn more about Principles for COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Distribution here.