Almost one year into the COVID pandemic and many of us, me included, are desperate for things to go “back to normal.” And now, with the COVID vaccine making headway around the world, that idea might be closer. However, for the Black community, this push for vaccinations is triggering a collective trauma that may not feel so long ago for some of us. Through my daily discourse with social media, I see another trend of shaming those who feel emotionally charged, scared, and confused by the COVID vaccine. For those within the Black community, especially for our elders – grandparents and great aunties and uncles – this vaccine reminds us of the trauma and harm done to us by the same people advocating for the vaccine now. I am speaking about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the forced torture and gynecological experiments performed on enslaved Black women by Dr. J. Marrion Simms. These instances are two examples of cases in which the medical industry has violated an entire community’s trust.
In the 1930s, a group of scientists conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to investigate the long-term effects of syphilis among Black men without their knowledge or consent to “justify” the need for a syphilis treatment program. Of the 600 participants, 399 were living with syphilis. The problem was these participants were never told that they were living with syphilis. These patients were also not offered a treatment plan. Instead, they were given free food, free lodging, and burial insurance for anyone that died from their untreated syphilis. This study lasted for 40 years.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the violent abuses perpetrated by Dr. J. Marrion Simms have left Black folks feeling anxious, withdrawn, and distrustful of all the clinic jargon. How would you feel if you have been lied to and deceived repeatedly and then asked — without thought or consideration to your past trauma, your pain, and the required emotional labor — to simply do what is asked without questions or boundaries? It is simple — you don’t do it or do it without agency and power in your decision, which creates another form of trauma. So, when others shame, pressure, and judge those that are feeling hesitant about saying “yes” to the COVID vaccine (whether they are inconsiderate or merely unaware of the medical trauma done to Black folks), they are re-traumatizing an already highly traumatized community.
This shaming must stop. We – and I mean all of us – cannot claim ownership and opinions over someone else’s body. We cannot judge or shame someone for what they feel is safe and comfortable for their own bodies. Most importantly, we cannot create notions of “you should do this and that” without considering why people feel the way they do – especially when it comes to medical care given the history of cases such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. What we can do is honor people’s trauma, create safe, caring environments, and respect and protect the decisions made by those who may not have the same privileges as we do. Everyone, especially Black folks, deserves time and patience to figure out what we need to do with their bodies.
Can it be fixed, and can the Black community regain the trust of the medical industry again? Trust is earned and built gradually. It can be challenging, especially after incidents such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Here at Prism Health North Texas, we know the work to create trust is on us. We understand that this is a bigger problem, one that is layered and pervasive and filled with pain for our patients and our staff. What I love best is our team knows that problem and honors it by utilizing patience, compassion, and grace towards those experiences. I am so grateful that we take the time to have these conversations – seeking better understanding and creating transparency with, AND for, our patients.
Healing is a continuous journey, and it will take time. Everyone should consider putting their own biases, privileges, and ignorance in check before judging anyone’s personal choices. This will aid the healing process and allow us all to move forward to a place of collective safety and trust.
Below I have attached some resources to help you make an informed decision about the vaccines and what you need to do for YOU.
Johns Hopkins Medicine – COVID-19 Vaccination Information and Updates
The Washington Post – Coronavirus vaccines face trust gap in Black and Latino Communities, Study Finds