COVID-19 causes medical community to acknowledge historical mistreatment of Black individuals

Lakesha Butler, a clinical pharmacy professor, was chosen to work on a COVID-19 commission with the National Medical Association. 

Discussions around the trustworthiness of  COVID-19 vaccines have brought back into the public eye the Black community’s distrust of medical professionals due to hundreds of years of discrimination and abuse. An SIUE pharmacy professor intends to work with other Black medical professionals to vet the vaccine.

Clinical pharmacy professor Lakesha Butler was recently chosen to work on the National Medical Association’s COVID-19 Commission on Vaccines and Therapeutics. The NMA is the largest group of Black medical professionals in the country. 

According to an Axios-Ipsos survey, 28 percent of Black respondents said they were likely to get the first round of COVID-19 vaccines compared to 51 percent of white respondents. Butler said the public, particularly the Black community, mistrusts the vaccine due to the speed at which the government is wanting to put it out.

“So there’s just a level of mistrust, just because of this speedy nature of the federal government wanting to approve a vaccine within the next month. And so if we as healthcare providers don’t trust the process, or don’t quite understand the process, we can’t expect our patients to either,” Butler said. “We’re just taking an in-depth look into the process ourselves so that we can clearly communicate to the communities that we serve, and the details of the process.”

However, the Black community’s mistrust of the institution of medicine is not new. Associate history professor Bryan Jack said there are many historical and current factors that have contributed to this growing mistrust.

“I think there’s a good reason for that mistrust to run deep, going all the way back to medical experimentations under slavery, all the way up through health disparities today,” Jack said. “When we see, for instance, African American women’s pain not being taken as seriously by doctors and medical professionals ... I think there’s a deep-seated and well-deserved mistrust in that community.”

Sociology professor Corey Stevens said another factor adding to the mistrust of the vaccine is clinical trials applying their effects on white men to other racial and gender categories.

“There’s a history too of us testing medications on, you know, white male bodies, and then applying those to other bodies, like women and trans people and Black people without really knowing what kind of side effects could occur,” Stevens said. “Although Black bodies aren’t necessarily that different from white bodies … there are differences in the way that these bodies have endured chronic stress and chronic strains over time.”

According to CNBC, Moderna, one of the pharmaceutical companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine, had to slow their clinical trials to ensure they had enough Black participants. Butler said this gives her hope because it is rare to see companies make an effort to get underrepresented populations in their clinical trials.

“There’s just been a historical disproportionate lack of representation, specifically, underrepresented minorities, more specifically African Americans … There’s also this lack of intentionality of wanting or trying to get underrepresented minorities in clinical trials,” Butler said. “I think that it is certainly a commendable action of this company to want to be inclusive.”

Stevens said one way to foster trust of the medical community is to fix barriers to education that prevent Black people from becoming doctors and medical researchers.

“There’s certainly lots of Black nurses, certainly lots of Black folks in the sort of lower echelons of medical care, and nursing aide and those kinds of positions, but we do need to see this kind of increase in Black folks who are doing research, Black folks who are working as primary care physicians,” Stevens said. “We need to work on those sort of barriers that keep Black folks from getting that kind of education.”

To learn more about the National Medical Association, visit their website. For more information on how COVID-19 impacts racial and ethnic minorities, visit the CDC page on Health Equity.

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