Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Geoffrey Canada on why he got vaccinated, lessons learned from the year of the virus, the pandemic’s impact on maternal and child health, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 44. March 17, 2021

Why I Took the Covid-19 Vaccine

By Geoffrey Canada

Six weeks ago, I received my second shot of the Covid-19 vaccine and I am now fully vaccinated. I cannot articulate the relief I feel knowing that I pose less of a threat to my wife, our children and grandchildren, and the community around me. I still wear my mask in public, but the fear that I might get sick and pass it on to my 91-year-old mother, who lives with me, is gone. I got vaccinated because I missed holidays with my family. There were funerals and graduations I couldn’t attend.  

I did not decide to get vaccinated without reflecting deeply on the relationship between Black and Brown communities and the health-care system in the United States. However, I’m confident I made the right decision for myself and my family, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you with the hope that you will do the same.      

The federal government has a history of exploiting Black and Brown people, and health care is no exception. In the 1930s, Black bodies were used as the equivalent of lab rats when the federal government decided to study Black people with syphilis in the Tuskegee Experiment, instead of treating them, and tracked them for 40 years without their consent. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, unknowingly became the source of what is now known as the HeLa line. Her cells were, for many years, the only cell line that could reproduce indefinitely. They were used without her consent in a myriad of medical research projects worldwide, which still go on today. 

But the Black community doesn’t have to look to the past to find reasons to view the medical profession with skepticism. Dismal mortality rates among birthing mothers still create a daunting childbearing experience for Black women and women of color. Breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer rates remain highest in our communities. You would be hard-pressed to find a person of color of a certain age who does not have a story of a medical encounter filled with micro-aggressions and substandard service and attentiveness.

Now we are being called to willingly inject a foreign substance into our arms — seemingly developed at lightning speed under an administration with a record of being dishonest and which was distrusted, with reason, by Black and Brown communities.

While acknowledging these reasons to feel cautious, I strongly encourage you to join me in receiving the vaccine and asking the community around you to do so as well.

We must look, just as critically, at what we have lost in the past year to the pandemic. Our community is under assault; we face the equivalent of war. I have lived through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the war in Afghanistan. The number of Covid deaths in the United States is higher than the casualties of all these wars combined. As of March 2, 2021 the Latino community has suffered over 89,000 deaths. As of March 7, 2021 the Black community has lost 73,462 lives. 

We know the heavy impact of Covid is attributed to several factors that cannot easily be changed. Our communities have high rates of chronic illnesses that make them susceptible to Covid’s worst complications. Many are employed as frontline workers and dwell in cramped living spaces, to name a few variables. 

The post-traumatic stress we now have to combat from living through the pandemic will impact our communities for years to come. There is no way to normalize this amount of sickness, death, and loss.  For too many of us, the suffering caused by Covid-19 is just beginning.  Our children missed a crucial year of education, heads of households lost their jobs, and evictions still loom.

I think about how wealthy people, who had the lowest risk of illness and death because of their access to resources, have jumped at the chance to take the Covid vaccine. More than 109 million doses of vaccines have been administered nationwide as of March 15, and there is no evidence of vaccine-related deaths or serious injuries.  People often report mild discomfort for a day or two after being inoculated, but I had no side effects. As more people get vaccinated, hospitalizations and the death toll are decreasing.

The government must make a concerted effort to make vaccines more accessible for communities of color. But it is also the responsibility of the people within our communities to advocate for the vaccine.

It would be a tragedy to see the virus recede among the wealthy and well-off yet still ravage our communities. To watch others going back to work, to school, and to family celebrations while Covid continues to devastate Black and Brown communities is my worst nightmare.  

We will have to work hard to recover from the past year. First, we must stop this virus in its tracks. The safest, quickest, most effective way to do this is to get vaccinated as soon as you are eligible to do so, and encourage the people around you to join you. 

Geoffrey Canada is the President and Founder of Harlem Childrens Zone. 

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

Vaccine hesitancy and the partisan divide

A new survey finds almost no difference in vaccine hesitancy between Black and White Americans, Juana Summers of NPR reports. The biggest divide is along partisan lines. Twenty-five percent of Black respondents and 28 percent of White respondents told the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey they do not plan to get the shot. Thirty-seven percent of Latinx respondents also said no. Forty-nine percent of Republican men said they do not intend to get inoculated, compared with just 6 percent of Democratic men. Rural residents were more likely to turn down the vaccine than city dwellers.  

Lower income people are less inclined to get vaccinated than more affluent people, a Pew Research survey finds, but overall, public enthusiasm for coronavirus vaccines has risen significantly since they became available in December. 

Some federal officials, including President Biden and Anthony Fauci, the nation’s infectious disease expert, say former president Donald Trump should urge his supporters to get vaccinated, the Washington Post reports. But many experts say trusted community authorities, including local doctors and clergy, are the most effective sources of information to address fears and skepticism, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or party affiliation. 

Thousands of clergy from a variety of faiths are weaving scripture and science to urge their congregants to get vaccinated. Some are going all out in providing their imprimatur by transforming their sanctuaries into vaccination clinics, the New York Times reports

The arts are another way to educate and inspire. PBS tells the story of Community Immunity, which advances vaccine literacy through animated rap songs. It’s a project of Hip Hop Public Health, founded 17 years ago by Columbia University neurologist Olajide Williams to develop engaging, resonant health and prevention messages for communities that are at high risk of chronic illnesses “but bogged down with the daily hustle of survival.”

The spread of Covid made nursing homes across the nation one of the deadliest places to work in America last year, but staff members have been much more reluctant than residents to get the vaccine. So why have Covid cases fallen dramatically? Experts theorize that vaccine uptake, while falling short, is providing benefits, especially coupled with protective gear and diligent infection control, Kaiser Health News reports. It’s also possible that many workers were infected in the past year, even if they didn’t realize it, and are immune — for now. Concerned about losing staff, nursing homes are reluctant to mandate vaccination, and it’s not clear if employers can legally require workers to take a vaccine that is authorized for emergency use but not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

One hard year later, lessons learned

It has been a year since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus to be a global pandemic and states began ordering shutdowns. What have we learned? 

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine look at lessons learned in Baltimore, where, as in many parts of the country, Covid highlighted and exacerbated the marginalization and gross neglect of undocumented immigrants. Kathleen R. Page and Alejandra Flores-Miller write in the New England Journal of Medicine that immigration reform is critical. They also call for more immediate steps: (1) provide cash benefits for all who need them regardless of immigration status; (2) guarantee occupational protections and higher wages for essential workers; and (3) fully engage community members in efforts to address health disparities — and pay them for their contributions.

In California, which has the nation’s largest Latinx population, those ages 35 to 49 died of coronavirus at more than five and a half times the rate of White peers, the Washington Post reports. With such a stunning loss of young lives nationally, life expectancy among Latinx people is projected to have fallen by about three years during 2020, according to a peer-reviewed study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged only recently that LGBTQ+ people confront many health disparities that put them at higher risk for coronavirus complications and death. But the federal government still hasn’t collected data on Covid infections and deaths in this population, Kate Sosin reports for The 19th. LGBTQ activists say their communities have been ravaged disproportionately but invisibly, and without data, they cannot make a case for resources and government support.

ProPublica takes an in-depth look at what a year of school closures, canceled activities, and isolation from friends has cost teens across the US.

Kevin John Fong draws on lessons learned as a frontline worker in the deadliest years of AIDS/HIV to reflect on how to process the loss of more than 532,000 people in the US and 2.6 million people worldwide. How do we find hope and comfort amid the grief? “It requires us to look, hear, feel, and receive deeply — to notice moments of light and love in the center of the pain,” he writes on Medium. “To hold onto them, and let them be a salve of comfort and respite as we struggle to fill the void left by grief. It also requires us to be sources of comfort and joy for each other.” 

The pandemic’s impact on pregnancy-related deaths 

The new Covid relief package, the American Rescue Plan, can have a lifesaving impact on postpartum women by allowing Medicaid to cover them for a year after birth, up from six weeks, Shefali Luthra of The 19th reports. Reproductive health experts and Black women advocates have pushed for this change for years. 

Some Black women — worried about Covid, racial health inequities, and a Black maternal death rate that’s four times the rate for White women — are turning away from conventional hospital obstetric services and choosing birth centers, the New York Times reports. Serving women with low-risk pregnancies, the centers are staffed by midwives, who have medical training, and doulas, who are skilled in providing physical comfort and practical and emotional support. 

And in the face of glaring health disparities in Native communities, a revival of Indigenous birthing practices is taking hold, The Nation reports. There are only a handful of Indigenous midwives trained in modern medical care and steeped in the knowledge of their ancestors. But these women are working to spread practices and traditions that were largely lost to cultural genocide, and in the process, create a model for care that empowers women and improves outcomes for mothers and babies.

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We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.