The Role of Experimentation and Medical Mistrust in COVID-19 Vaccine Skepticism

For many people in the United States, the approval of the ​​​​Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines symbolize hope for the end of a virus that has plagued this country and the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported 373,167 COVID-19-related deaths across the United States as of January 11, with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) being disproportionately impacted.

In November, the CDC reported that when compared to White/non-Latinx persons; Indigenous, Asian, Black, and Latinx folks are more likely to be diagnosed, hospitalized, and die from COVID-19. Yet a recent national survey conducted by the COVID Collaborative, Langer Research, UnidosUS, and the NAACP found that the majority of Black and Latinx people do not trust the vaccine to be effective or safe.

Courtney J. Jones Carney

So how can there be such levels of distrust in a vaccine and its effectiveness among some of the most impacted populations? While the answer to this is complex, it is directly connected to White supremacy, the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as White and the practices and standards of norms based upon that assumption, and the role that structurally oppressive systems play in giving privilege to those with agent identities while disenfranchising others. Themes of power and dominance can be present in interactions between patients and doctors and the manner in which vaccination skeptics are often ridiculed or dismissed as uneducated. It is the way that some anchor institutions have centered their will and domination over the neighborhoods that they occupy.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment seems to be the most mentioned medical experiment when discussing BIPOC medical mistrust, but the legacy of experimentation and unethical research of BIPOC and marginalized populations does not begin and end with Tuskegee. Instead, the roots of medical mistrust are much deeper and wider. One of the earliest documented cases involved experiments on enslaved women of African descent at the hands of J. Marion Sims, who is referred to as the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” His experiments on Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were conducted without anesthesia due to its hig

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