Seeds of Distrust: The Black community, COVID-19 vaccine and historical events leading to lack of trust

Updated: Dec. 29, 2020 at 11:23 PM EST
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out across South Carolina and the country, many in the Black community said they won’t get it due to a lack of trust in the government.

“Whenever healthcare becomes a political item, people die,” said Dr. Winston McIver, a licensed physician at Waccamaw Care in Conway.

It’s a strong dose of reality from a frontline doctor as the nation is crippled by COVID-19.

“To unleash the full power of the federal government today, I am officially declaring a national emergency,” President Donald Trump announced in a bombshell statement on March 13.

As schools and businesses closed, many Americans were forced into unemployment. Travel halted and millions were left wondering what happens next.

By late spring, 100,000 people had died from the coronavirus.

According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, African Americans make up 27% of the state’s population, but they account for a large portion of the state’s COVID-related deaths.

“The health divide is real,” McIver said responding to those alarming numbers. “Certainly, viruses don’t have an affinity to any group, class, race, what have you. So, when I started hearing those things about people of color couldn’t get it, I said I need to go out and do some educating.”

Early on, McIver rolled up his sleeves, turned on his webcam and started weekly announcements informing South Carolinians, especially those in black communities, the dangers of what was to come of COVID-19.

“Even though we have COVID fatigue, this is not to be played with,” he said during one of his announcements.

As the pandemic raged on, claiming more lives and pushing hospital capacity to its limits, efforts to find a safe and effective vaccine became more crucial, but finding Black people to volunteer in vaccine trials would prove to be a challenge.

“That’s a problem because, again, we do know that with any medicine there can be genetic and racial variabilities in the effectiveness of the medicines,” McIver explained.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, only three percent of people enrolled in vaccine studies were Black. While some may find that statistic alarming, McIver said a look into the history of medical trials with African Americans shows reluctance was inevitable.

In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service, in partnership with Tuskegee Institute, started a trial to study the effects of untreated Syphilis in Black men.

Of the 600 men involved, 399 had Syphilis, 201 without. The study was supposed to last six months, but instead lasted more than 40 years and had catastrophic effects on the Black community.

“Penicillin was around in 1947 and even when Penicillin was around those people still were not treated,” McIver said.

McIver said it was a huge mistake made by the United States government.

“I think they (victim’s families) wanted an apology for their loved ones,” he added.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when McIver’s mentor, Dr. Bill Jenkins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blew the whistle on what would become known as the Tuskegee Study.

But it wasn’t until 1997-65 years after the study- the federal government took responsibility.

“We can stop turning our heads away, we can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people what the United States government did was shameful and I am sorry,” President Bill Clinton said on March 16, 1997, inside of the White House with families present.

In addition to pledging a $200,000 grant to Tuskegee University, Clinton announced the creation of bioethics fellowships for minority students which McIver was one of two recipients at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“I was upset. I was very upset, I was angry, I was frustrated, and it made me even more determined to be a disseminator of health care and good information,” McIver said.

McIver has spent his career working to correct inequities in healthcare and now, as two coronavirus vaccines start rolling out across the country, his work is even more important.

A recent Kaiser survey shows 35% of Black adults say they probably or definitely would not get the COVID-19 vaccine, with more than half citing lack of trust in government.

McIver predicts more death is to come in the black community if people choose not to get the vaccine.

While McIver understands the skepticism, he is hopeful more African Americans trust the new science as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately tighten its grip on the lives in the black community.

“Unfortunately, until someone in their family, someone close to them or them in themselves get COVID and understand COVID and what it can do before they wake up,” he said. “But some people don’t realize water is wet until they get a little put on them.”

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