The Briar Patch— A dilemma with good reason
- Published: February 16, 2021
Reason – the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic.
Reason – a cause, explanation or justification for an action or event
Yellow Springs has a tradition of being on the frontier of diverse health practices and civil rights. Our local African American Episcopal Church (AME) held health clinics on its premises before the COVID-19 pandemic. If you visited any of the local hangout spots downtown before the shutdowns, you could hear passionate conversations about improving soil nutrients, herbal treatments and doula or meditation practices. These were interspersed with discussions around police brutality and civil rights. Folks of all walks of life engaged in these talks. You’d also hear intense debates around whether or not children should be vaccinated. For many in our health-focused community, vaccination in the best of times is a very touchy subject. The pandemic has blasted this debate into the stratosphere. On many of the Yellow Springs social media discussion group pages, spirited conversations have taken place around whether or not to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.
But this is not a pro- or anti-vaccination commentary. This is a call for acknowledging a complex dilemma, particularly for African Americans.
There is a recognition that liberating the body requires centering healthcare in the fight for equality in Yellow Springs. Health, food security and environmental practices have often converged here along with the civil rights movement and its heir apparent Black Lives Matter movement. The complementary nature of these traditions is still alive and well despite the fact that the local African American population has dropped precipitously to just around 12% down from around 30% in the 1970s. Springers remain committed despite changing demographics. If you have ever attended any community march or rally for Black lives, you will see people who have taken time from their organic farms and gardens participating — and if you know any gardeners and farmers, you know they don’t leave the land for just anything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already catastrophic healthcare crisis in Black communities across the United States. The conversation around vaccinations must extend beyond forced mandates or anti-vaxxer tropes. Racism in the healthcare system infects us all. African Americans are suffering from the underlying conditions of systemic racism that often result in higher levels of stress, diabetes and heart disease. Contracting COVID-19 with these health challenges has proven lethal. Worse, Black people with these conditions comprise a large number of our frontline and medical workers.
For many African Americans, vaccination is complicated. Many Black people are less than enthused at the prospect of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine despite being approximately 3.6 times more likely to die from the virus than white people. According to the Brookings Institute, “Death rates among Black people between 55–64 years are higher than for white people aged 65–74, and death rates are higher for Blacks aged 65–74 than for whites aged 75–84, and so on. In every age category, Black people are dying from COVID at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older. Age-specific death rates for Hispanic/Latino people fall in between.”
So why are African Americans leery of COVID-19 vaccination, given how hard hit the community has been? A powerful New Yorker Magazine article, “Black America Has Reason to Question Authorities,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, appeared in the Jan. 10, 2021, issue. Taylor does not hold back in her assessment of the reasons.
“The skepticism among the Black public is not rooted in the same kind of anti-scientific sentiment that has motivated those small communities that reject vaccines in general. Instead, Black concerns are enmeshed within a history of Black health care that is replete with acts of cruelty and depravity and has caused Black communities to regard the health-care professions with warranted suspicion.”
“More important, racism in the provision of medical treatment in the United States has tainted the ways that health-care professionals view Black suffering and symptoms, and Black bodies, more generally.”
The tragic treatment of medical doctor Susan Moore, as reported in the New York Times, underscores her point.
“Lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen tube hugging her nostrils, the Black patient gazed into her smartphone and, with a strained voice, complained of an experience all too common among Black people in America.
Susan Moore, the patient, said the white doctor at the hospital in suburban Indianapolis where she was being treated for COVID-19 had downplayed her complaints of pain. He told her that he felt uncomfortable giving her more narcotics, she said, and suggested that she would be discharged.”
“I was crushed,” she said in a video posted to Facebook. “He made me feel like I was a drug addict.”
Her experience is a real time example of the findings of a 2016 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which it was revealed that a large percentage of white medical trainees believed that Black people didn’t feel pain like other ethnic groups because of their biological makeup. As a result, “Physicians were more likely to underestimate the pain of Black patients (47%) relative to nonblack patients (33.5%).”
It was announced on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, that 86-year-old baseball great Henry Aaron had passed away (peacefully in his sleep) after receiving his first of the required two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. When the news hit, social media chatter exploded among many of my African American friends. The differences between the chatter on our local Yellow Springs discussion groups about COVID-19 vaccines and the comments my friends were sharing were notable because of cultural differences. Memes alluding to the possibilities of any connection between the vaccine and Mr. Aaron’s death were shared. Mr. Aaron, along with civil rights activist and former Ambassador Andrew Young, had been seen one week prior to his death receiving the vaccine at HBCU Morehouse School of Medicine. The vaccine was administered by African American medical staff. The marketing mission seemed pretty straight forward: ease the concerns of a Black community resistant to receiving the vaccine. Demonstrate that the COVID-19 vaccine was safe by showing two highly respected African American elders receiving it to millions of people.
Mr. Aaron’s death, beyond being devastating to his family and community, is unfortunately, and perhaps cynically, a public relations nightmare. In fact, we don’t yet know if his death was a result of receiving the vaccine. This is important to emphasize. And witnessing Black healthcare workers receiving or injecting the vaccine isn’t particularly reassuring to some, either. Knowing that a Black doctor helped create one of the vaccines doesn’t move the needle much. A Black nurse named Eunice Rivers Laurie was complicit with white doctors who withheld medical treatment of Black men participating in the Tuskegee Experiment, when 600 men were not told they were participating in a medical study.
Some folks are looking at this history and countless others and actually wondering, “If my ancestors survived the middle passage, racism etc., should I take my chances with COVID?”
These examples and multitudes more cannot be downplayed anymore. This is hot, moist and messy. The United States, because of its own racist behavior, has a marketing problem that cannot be resolved with a couple of public service videos or public media events in which we see prominent people getting vaccinated.
There are African Americans in our community who have received the vaccine or plan to. Some are anxious about mandating vaccines on bodies already taxed with historical bondage. But no one should enter into this process, whether for or against the COVID-19 vaccine, without some understanding that Black people have reason to be cautious despite the urgency of the crisis.