To Vaccinate Or Not To Vaccinate: A Brief Look at Anti-Black Racism in Medicine

To Vaccinate Or Not To Vaccinate: A Brief Look at Anti-Black Racism in Medicine

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog references historical events that contain medical violence; please read at your own discretion.

It has been almost a year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine is now underway in Canada. Some view this vaccine as the answer to their prayers or the thing that will bring them one step closer to resuming a life of normalcy, while others are apprehensive about receiving the vaccine. Skepticism about the vaccine appears prevalent in Black communities; despite the fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black Canadians. A brief look at historic events will provide some insight as to why this is the case. 

The Father of Modern Gynecology: James Marion Sims

Between 1845 - 1849, James Marion Sims, who is often referred to as the father of modern (surgical) gynaecology, operated unethically on a group of enslaved African American women in Montgomery, Alabama. He is famously known for the development of the first consistently successful operation for the cure of vesicovaginal fistula, a catastrophic complication of childbirth in which a hole develops between a woman's bladder and her vagina and leads to constant, unremitting, and uncontrollable urinary incontinence. A young slave named Anarcha underwent 30 operations before Sims was able to close the holes in her bladder and rectum.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments

Fast forward to 1932 - 1972, when the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (TSUS) was conducted. 600 men took part in this experiment and most of them were poor and illiterate sharecroppers from the county. The participants were enticed to enroll with the promise of free treatment for minor ailments, guarantees that burial stipends would be paid to their survivors after they died, and more. During the study, in 1947, penicillin became the standard treatment for the disease. Not only were these men denied treatment, but they were actively discouraged from getting medical advice from healthcare practitioners who were not a part of the study. Instead, they received placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements. Consequently, the men either died, went blind, insane, or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis

Black Women and Forced Sterilization

In 1950 - 1966, it was believed that Black women were not capable of being good parents and poverty should be managed by limiting reproduction. Black women were forcibly sterilized at more than three times the rate of white women and more than 12 times the rate of white men. 

Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a young Black mother of 5, named Henrietta Lacks, visited John Hopkins hospital due to vaginal bleeding. The gynecologist who examined Lacks, Dr. Howard Jones, discovered a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. During her treatment, tissue samples were taken and portions were passed along to a researcher without her knowledge or permission. Research discovered that “HeLa”, the name given to her cancer cells, were capable of surviving and dividing in culture indefinitely. Lacks later lost her life to cancer, but the research of her cells continued. Later findings were lucrative; however, members of the Lacks family were not compensated and went on to live in poverty with limited access to health care.

Looking Ahead

Given the history of medical abuse and the current substandard treatment that Black people continue to experience on a daily basis from medical professionals, it is understandable why many of us are hesitant about taking this vaccine. To add insult to injury, instead of being met with understanding and compassion, we are being shamed and blamed for being vaccine hesitant; which is only creating more distance between us regaining trust with medical professionals. We are not being seen, our voices are not being heard, and our experiences are being invalidated.

Our lack of faith in the medical system came about over time and will take time to restore, there is a long road ahead of us all, and several steps that need to be taken, such as: 

  • Receiving acknowledgement from health care providers of the past traumatic maltreatment that Black people have experienced.
  • Creating safe spaces for us to ask questions and actually have those questions answered in a way that makes us feel safe, seen, and heard.
  • Providing members of the Black community with up-to-date and relevant information so that we can stay informed, be aware of what our rights are, and know which services and resources are available to us. 

For instance, one initiative, on behalf of the TO Supports: Targeted Equity Action Plan called, The Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity was created back in December 2020. In collaboration with TAIBU Community Health Center, their mission is to address COVID-19 related issues within the Black community, vaccines, and testing. The Task Force, which includes many of Canada’s top Black scientists involved in key aspects of vaccine development and Black public health, will review the major concerns and issues around COVID-19 testing and levels of vaccine acceptance, and develop public health recommendations to effectively address Black community concerns.

Black History Matters. Black Futures Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Bodies Matter. Black Experiences Matter. Black Stories Matter. Black Voices Matter. Every single part of us matters. We Matter.

Nicki Reid, Bilingual BA‍

Certified Transformational Coach | Certified Essential Oil Specialist |

Certified ARōMATOUCH Practitioner | 200 YTT , Wholesome Mind Health Coaching