Concerns from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities about the Covid-19 vaccine have not been addressed by the government, campaigners have said, as structural inequalities and historical medical racism has led to “hesitancy” about the jab.
But a recent poll by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London found little more than a third of ethnic minority Londoners (39%) said they were likely to take the jab compared with 70% of white people in the capital. That is despite Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities continuing to be disproportionately hospitalised and killed by Covid-19.
HuffPost UK has spoken to doctors, academics and members of the public, and discovered the concern stems from racial inequality in the healthcare system and the history of medical experimentation on Black people.
Professor Sophie Harman, who specialises in the politics of global health at Queen Mary University of London, said the survey’s findings are “unsurprising”.
She said: “Would you trust a government that accepts you’re more likely to die of Covid-19 than your white neighbours and does nothing very much about it? Vaccine hesitancy risks a double tragedy: racial inequality in deaths from Covid-19 and potential racial inequality in vaccine uptake.”
Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, told HuffPost UK the government had not done enough to make specific efforts to reassure BAME communities about the safety of the vaccine.
“There are so many myths surrounding the vaccination that it’s irresponsible of the government not to set up a dedicated website with frequently asked questions,” she said.
“You can imagine, ethnic minority communities will be very nervous. They need the government to engage with them, respect their concerns, acknowledge they’re reasonable concerns given that the government hasn’t really done anything to address their vulnerabilities.”
“Racism has plagued the healthcare service as well as the history of medical experimentation on Black individuals. Concerns from Black communities regarding the Covid-19 vaccine are not invalid”
Campaigners argue many in BAME communities are “nervous” because of a litany of questionable historical and modern day medical treatments, and repeated examples of healthcare benefiting white people disproportionately – with non-white people generally experiencing poorer health outcomes throughout their lives.
In April, two French doctors came under fire for racism after a TV debate in which one suggested trials in Africa to see if a tuberculosis vaccine would prove effective against coronavirus.
The comments received an angry response on social media, including from former footballer Didier Drogba who cautioned Europeans not to “take African people as human guinea pigs”.
Between 1845 and 1849, Dr James Marion Sims – widely regarded as the “father of modern gynaecology” – tortured enslaved Black woman while perfecting his medical surgeries on their bodies with consent or an anaesthetic.
He also invented the modern speculum, Sims’s position for vaginal exams, which he first used on slaves and has gone on to be used widely within healthcare. As such, Sims is viewed favourably by many historians and has several worldwide monuments, despite his brutality.
During the Tuskegee Study in 1932, Black American men died of syphilis over 40 years in disproportionate numbers due to poor care during a series of unethical medical trials.
More recently, south Asian women have been known to complain about having their pain dismissed by doctors who claim they are suffering from the so-called “Mrs Bibi syndrome”, also known as “Begum syndrome”, HuffPost UK has reported.
Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, a disparity the NHS acknowledges and regrets but does not have a target to end.
In a collaboration with Black Ballad this summer, Black women revealed the shocking racism they faced in the UK’s healthcare system during pregnancy and childbirth – including instances where doctors didn’t believe their pain.
What’s more, Black people are severely underrepresented in the UK’s database of Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial volunteers.
Responding to BAME communities not being included on the vaccine priority list, Jacqui Burnett – a Black woman – said: “Blacks are fed up of being the ones vaccines are tried out on first historically. Our cup is full and running over.”
Someone else echoed this, saying: “I don’t want to be their experiment.”
A Black woman, Vanessa, said: “Give the politicians and top health advisers it first. Wait a year then come back and talk to me.”
Another person of colour expressed fear that they would be used as “lab rats for a vaccine that hasn’t been proven 100% safe now and in the future”.
In fact, there are no safety concerns about the vaccine. It has been tested on 43,500 people in six countries. Like some other foods and vaccines, people with a history of severe allergic reactions have been advised not to receive it, but that does not mean it is unsafe for anyone else.
Rather than the result of shortcuts or the loosening of safety standards, the speed with which Covid vaccines have been developed is due to the phenomenal money and effort thrown at the problem – the UK government alone has spent £6bn in total to develop and procure them. We put five popular vaccine myths to an independent scientist – here’s how she responded to each of them.
Risk of Covid to BAME people
A Public Health England review published this summer found people from ethnic minorities were more likely to contract and die from Covid-19 and ministers promised to take steps to reduce disparities in these risk and outcomes. This pledge has not been not honoured.
Haque said: “Why have a review which showed that people from BAME backgrounds and those living in more deprived areas are more likely to be hospitalised and die from Covid-19 if you’re not going to address that risk?”
Anti-vaxxers have been responsible for peddling wild conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines, including false claims that the jab will modify people’s DNA and result in patients being implanted with a microchip that will be used to control the population. But campaigners have stressed the importance of not confusing vaccine hesitancy for anti-vaccination.
Haque explained: “There is a difference between the anti-vaxxers and the vaccine hesitant group. It would be a big disservice to BAME communities to suggest that they are the anti-vaxxers because they tend to be irrational, have very different reasons for not taking vaccines and a lot of it isn’t necessarily based on the science so to speak.
“Vaccine hesitancy isn’t necessarily irrational. It can be very reasonable doubt, anxiety, nervousness about the vaccine. What we really need is for the government to engage with that.”
As recently as Wednesday during a conference on ethnic minority health inequality, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch – a Black woman – dismissed the role of structural racism in medical outcomes for BAME communities.
Pointing to Badenoch’s responsibility in addressing ethnic disproportionality in transmission of the virus, Haque said: “That signals the government’s approach to how seriously they take the virus risk among ethnic minority communities. This isn’t an equalities issue – it’s a public health issue.
“Unless over 60% of the population takes the vaccine we will not get population immunity which means we won’t be coming out of this pandemic. At the moment there’s quite a high rate of vaccine hesitancy.”
Luton-based GP Dr Simisola Alabi described the concerns that some Black people have shared with her about the vaccine. It boils down to one fundamental question: is it safe?
The jab is the fastest vaccine to go from concept to reality, taking only 10 months to follow the same steps that sometimes take a decade – although scientists have been able to assure the public no corners have been cut.
“The vaccine is relatively safe but the truth is a lot of the work that is supposed to have been done in developing the vaccine could not be done because of time constraints – such a how it interacts with other medicines, its effects on reproduction,” Alabi told HuffPost UK.
The vaccine was not tested on pregnant women, which is why the NHS says they should wait until after giving birth to take it.
“Black communities are ignored generally, in every scenario, so it’s an uphill task when you’re trying to get good health outcomes as a patient. I take exception to the fact that we haven’t been prioritised on the vaccination list – at least give us a chance to say no.”
Alabi – clinical director at the multi-practice Titan Primary Care Network – said many Black people she knows have access to disinformation videos about the vaccine that consist of “utter rubbish” but are being shared widely across WhatsApp.
She said: “Given the lack of trust in the government, there is a responsibility on Black people to utilise sound resources available and educate themselves about what is and isn’t safe.”
Minority ethnic healthcare professionals are playing a key role in sharing reliable information about the vaccine on social media. Just last week on Clubhouse, a new invite-only voice-based app, UK Black doctors took it upon themselves to address concerns and misinformation about the vaccine.
The Ubele Initiative, a Black-led social enterprise, has been independently collating information regarding people’s vaccination concerns which it intends to share with the Greater London Authority.
Melanin Medics is a UK charity that promotes diversity in medicine. Its founder and chief exec Olamide Dada told HuffPost UK: “Given the events of this year, which have revealed the extent to which racism has plagued the healthcare service, as well as the history of medical experimentation on Black individuals, concerns from Black communities regarding the Covid-19 vaccine are not invalid.
“These events have contributed to a great degree of distrust within Black communities, questioning whether the vaccine really is in their best interest. We know that Black people are more at risk of Covid-19 and in light of this, both trust and transparency are needed to ensure that at-risk groups are well protected.
“Whilst years of distrust cannot be rebuilt in a single moment, it is imperative that these concerns are well-addressed in a timely manner in the best interest of Black communities. This is a pivotal step in addressing racial inequality that has manifested itself within the healthcare system.”
Nadhim Zahawi, minister responsible for Covid vaccine deployment, told HuffPost UK: “Vaccines save lives and are the most effective public health intervention since clean water.
“All vaccines go through a robust clinical trial process and are only rolled out to patients once they have met the strict safety, effectiveness and quality standards of the UK’s medicines regulator, the MHRA.
“The NHS will provide advice and information at every possible opportunity, including working closely with BAME communities, to support those receiving a vaccine and to anyone who has questions about the vaccination process.”
HuffPost UK has approached the Equalities Office and Downing Street for comment.