Something that should be of little consequence is filled with angst for me
About a month ago, with some trepidation, I went on several websites looking for available appointments to get a COVID vaccine, initially to no avail. This was before many states in the US offered the vaccine simply by walking in. It took around four days before I snagged an appointment at the Javits Center on May 31st. In pre-pandemic times, it served as a convention center and event venue in New York City. Now it’s a mass vaccination site.
A week after making that appointment, I realized that May 31st was Memorial Day. I didn’t want to get the shot on a national holiday, but I wasn’t sure if I could reschedule the appointment. Eventually, I figured that I had nothing to lose by trying. This time, it only took a matter of hours to get my appointment changed to April 11, at a different venue. I traveled an hour on two different buses to get to the site, a high school around three or four miles from my home, on a chilly, raw day. The process took less than a half- hour. Besides experiencing a sore arm the next day, I felt fine.
I have a friend and a few family members who are still hesitant over getting the vaccine, so I felt conflicted over getting it. Reluctant white people spout ridiculous conspiracy theories such as the COVID vaccines are a Democratic plot to kill us off or that they have chips to track us. The reasons that my Black friends and family are still hesitant are rooted in generational trauma.
Our people served as guinea pigs throughout our country’s history and experimented on without their knowledge or consent. The Tuskegee experiment is the most well-known one, but there are others, some of which happened not so long ago. For instance, J. Marion Sims, regarded as the pioneer of gynecology, operated on enslaved women without anesthesia nor their consent. Then there is the fact that Black women were sterilized in the past without their knowledge or consent. Many of these instances happened at least 50 or 60 years ago. It’s not ancient history.
These instances of forced experimentation perpetuate that Black people don’t have the right to have agency over their bodies.
Initially, the fact that the COVID vaccines were given emergency authorization in a short amount of time provided the Black community pause, myself included. Usually, vaccines take a decade or more to be developed and tested before becoming available to the general public.
So these vaccines getting approved within a year made my community skeptical. Over time, it was stated that these vaccines have been in development over the last two decades due to the previous SARS and MERS epidemics in the early 2000s, which did not affect the United States to a large degree.
Given this knowledge, vaccine hesitancy is decreasing in the Black community, but there are still pockets of resistance. In fact, those in our community who want the vaccine sometimes find it challenging to access it. Although Black people are disproportionally affected by COVID-19, our vaccination rate is 1.6 times less than whites.
In some cases, cities and towns around the country deliberately did not send sufficient vaccines to our communities, citing our vaccine hesitancy. This only served to blame our community for not getting the services we need instead of focusing on decreasing barriers to access.
One barrier to accessing the vaccines currently being cited is the heavy reliance on online scheduling, which mainly shuts out elderly Black Americans. Although they are the most vulnerable group regarding COVID-19, over 25% of them lack internet access.
This disproportionate reliance on technology impacts their health negatively. My parents are two such elderly Black people. While they have younger family members around to assist them, the onus should not be put on us to fill in gaps in access created by our government officials. Those Black elderly who do not have younger people around to assist them are out of luck and face even more deleterious outcomes.
While most states have set up toll-free numbers to schedule appointments, the hold times were excessive until recently. As the supply of vaccines is now exceeding demand in the US, many states allow people to access vaccines by walk-in, without appointments. This should remove a significant barrier to access for some Black people.
Another barrier to access is simply being able to take the time to get the vaccines. Black people are more likely than the dominant population to work in occupations considered essential, making it harder for us to get the time off necessary to obtain the shots. Solutions such as 24-hour vaccination sites and mobile or pop-up vaccination centers make it easier for front-line workers to get the shots needed and should be expanded.
For Black folx who don’t have barriers to access as an excuse, being privileged may not be enough for some of us to get over our hesitancy. I feel conflicted because, on the one hand, while it’s easy for me to chuckle over the reasons for vaccine hesitancy among whites, I can’t dismiss or scoff at the roots of the resistance in my community. The mistreatment and neglect of our people by our government and the medical establishment are ongoing structural issues that need to be solved at the macro level.
On the other hand, I feel some resentment because the longer it takes to vaccinate our population, the longer it will take for us to return to some semblance of normalcy in our daily lives. A public health issue such as a vaccine is now a political one in this country. Sickness, death, and health shouldn’t be up for debate, but it is as certain people would prefer that access to essential services remain unequal.
Simply making this piece public is enough for some in my community to give me flak over becoming “the man’s guinea pig” or a sellout. But I’m not about to live my life according to what others expect of me. I did that in the past, and it made me miserable. No more.
Speaking only for myself, while venues such as movie theaters and gyms have re-opened in my city over the last few months, I don’t dare set foot in them because of fear of contracting COVID. I have not been inside these establishments in over a year. The vaccine gives me some peace of mind over resuming some of the activities I used to enjoy.
In another instance, there are friends and family I have not seen in a year. My social circle is smaller than it used to be because while I’m doing outdoor activities such as outdoor dining and visiting botanical gardens with those who are willing, there are a few within my circle who barely leave their homes at all. The vaccine enables me to see more of my loved ones again.
In the broader sense, there is a widening belief among the public that certain establishments will soon require proof of vaccination to partake in some activities to decrease their liability, like those same movie theaters and gyms I just mentioned.
For those who say that they’ll simply never set foot in movie theaters, gyms or restaurants ever again, they still may not be off the hook if their employers start to require that their staff be vaccinated to perform their jobs. Are these people in a position to give up their paychecks over a principle? I certainly am not. In the long run, many people won’t be able to evade the vaccines, no matter how resistant they are toward getting them.
Obtaining a vaccine shot, which is usually something of little consequence, is now fraught with angst for me. Do I owe my loyalty to my community or is my loyalty to myself? I already answered my question by getting my first Moderna vaccine shot a few weeks ago, but it still makes me uneasy to a small extent. I didn’t feel a sense of relief that some have expressed over obtaining the COVID vaccines, and I probably still won’t when I get my second Moderna shot on May 9.
Instead, I‘ll feel anger and helplessness over the inequities that are causing difficulty for some in my community to obtain the vaccines. I’ll also feel compassion and ambivalence over those who still resist them. An undertaking over my health shouldn’t come with all those feelings.
©Vena Moore 2021