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Updated: March 15, 2021 outside the box

Apprehension about the COVID-19 vaccine

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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Since the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, beginning with healthcare workers and elders, I’ve heard this question a lot: Why aren’t Black employees getting the vaccine? The question should be: Why would Black people get the vaccine, given the oppressive medical practices Black people have endured historically? A report from UnidosUS, the NAACP, and COVID Collaborative revealed only 14% of Black Americans and 34% of Latinx Americans say they have trust in the COVID-19 vaccine.

A long and well-documented history in the U.S. of government-led or government-supported medical malpractice directed toward BIPOC, particularly Black Americans, has left a legacy of fear and distrust.

The Tuskegee Study is one grand example of this historical malpractice; a clinical study on untreated syphilis in the Black male, conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service. The purpose of this study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis; the poor Black men in the study were told they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government, which was a lie. The study recruited 600 black men, of which 399 were diagnosed with syphilis. The researchers never obtained informed consent from the men and never told the men with syphilis they were not being treated, but were simply being watched until they died and their bodies examined for ravages of the disease. Many men died, 40 wives contracted the disease, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. The 40-year Tuskegee Study was a major violation of ethical standards, and has been cited as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history.” On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the U.S. to victims of the experiment, calling it shameful and racist.

In the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Rebecca Skloot captures the story of a major scientific discovery, one with grave human consequences. Henrietta died unnecessarily young; her white doctors knew something was unusual about the cancer cells on her cervix. Henrietta’s cells – HeLa cells – were taken without her knowledge and have become one of the most important tools in medicine. HeLa cells are still alive today even though she died nearly 70 years ago. These cells grow unusually fast, doubling their count in only 24 hours. They are immortal – meaning they will divide again and again and again without dying off, making them ideal for large-scale testing. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovering secrets of cancer and viruses; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her immortality until nearly 20 years after her death. These cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry, and her family never saw a cent.

Instead of shaming and blaming, employers need to step back and make an effort to understand why BIPOC people have so much fear and distrust in the healthcare system. Most BIPOC people want to get the shot, and hesitancy is not the same as opposition. It makes sense to be cautious and ask questions.

What can you do as a business leader? Run town halls, in person and over video, to talk to your staff about the vaccine. Some people come with questions about their specific situations. Fear-assuaging education is especially important when we deal with the unknown: a coronavirus and a vaccine made with new messenger RNA technology. These conversations might be time-consuming, but they will pay off in the long-run. Working directly with community leaders and amplifying the voices of people of color can ease fears, and build trust. Leadership must practice empathy to support all employees. It’s a life-and-death scenario for businesses, literally; vaccine uptake is our ticket to a safer, healthier new normal.

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

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