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Historic, unethical treatment of Black, Indigenous peoples behind COVID-19 vaccine mistrust

Last Updated Dec 22, 2020 at 9:05 pm EDT

Horrific events in history and the unethical treatment of Black and Indigenous peoples could be the reason why some from these communities could be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to some academics.

“This mistrust we’re seeing in medical sciences is rooted in history of anti-Black racism, and we know that Indigenous groups as well we’re experimented [on],” said Public Health Insight co-founder Gordon Thane.

Michelle Driedger, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, says in Indigenous communities stems from “a sense they are being tested on.”

“Because of all the historical context around poor practices in medical research and experimentation on Indigenous bodies, that historical experience is very strong,” said Driedger.

A study on race and health conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation in the U.S. found that Black adults were less likely than any other groups to get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it was free and determined to be safe by scientists. Just 17 per cent of Black adults said they would definitely get the vaccine, 20 percentage points lower than both Hispanic and white adults. Twenty per cent of Black adults said they would definitely not get it.

“A lot of what we know is from the U.S. data, because as we know, Canada isn’t really known for collecting racial and ethnic-based data on these health indicators,” said Thane.

“How else do you document impact on individual race and community of people to demonstrate why we need to have equity responses,” added Driedger

During a public health crisis, Thane says it’s vital government and public health leaders find a way to address concerns.

“We have to do a better job of assuring them that the vaccine was developed in an ethical way this time,” Thane says. “It doesn’t overwrite all the wrongs, but this time steps were taken to make sure the vaccine was developed.”

Experts have said this hesitancy is rooted in medical mistrust from incidents like the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.

The 40-year U.S. study never informed the hundreds of African American participants that they were test subjects and they didn’t get treated for the disease, despite there being a treatment for Syphilis.

“There needs to be an openness and conversation and ownership of that dark medical history in the Black community, whether it’s in the U.S. or Canada, said Thane.

Months into the pandemic, Ontario finally began collecting race-based data, as did Toronto, and found the Black community was disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In Canada, Indigenous peoples have been identified as one of the priority groups during the vaccine rollout.

“I think often it comes into when there are novel vaccines and a sense that they are being tested on. We saw that during the H1N1 vaccine,” said Driedger

There were some lessons learned from H1N1 pandemic and the rollout of those vaccinations. Driedger says the major challenge, was that it wasn’t communicated to certain communities why they are considered priority groups.

“I spoke with urban First Nations and Metis. They didn’t see people sick [during the H1N1 pandemic], so for them, it was met with distrust and with colonial lens.”

Driedger says, she is working alongside a team in Manitoba to hopefully do some research on this in the new year.

“I don’t think … the same level of mistrust will be there, because of their experience of seeing people them around be severely affected by this disease,” said Driedger. “There might be a greater willingness to accept the vaccine, but I don’t know for certain.”

A one size fits approach for communities who have a history of mistrust, won’t do– say experts.

But developing strategies, addressing the root causes, and engaging trusted leaders to help address questions about the vaccine will help to build confidence.

Driedger adds she thinks it will be really important to have Indigenous leaders, respected Indigenous physicians or frontline health professionals and researchers speaking to the community about what we know about the vaccine, “as a way to build up confidence and trust that this isn’t being tested out on Indigenous bodies before the white guys can get it.”