Black History Month feels different this year. It’s not just because of the apparent increase in special programming on television and the expansion of relevant articles in the print media, though both of those have burgeoned. Nor is it only because of the emotional thrust of Black Lives Matter protests and a greater willingness to focus on police misuse of deadly force although today, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and many others have become household names. Certainly, knowing their faces, names and circumstances of their deaths drives home their humanity.
What’s amping up the potency of the moment is the pandemic, where the impact of the disease has fallen disproportionately on people of color, often those whose jobs are the infrastructure of our economy – jobs that can’t be done remotely, jobs that endanger their health and lives every day. Across the country, infection and death rates among people of color far exceed their percentages of the population. Obviously this correlates to where they live, more often densely populated, low-income urban centers, where disease transmission occurs more readily.
Those same people are among the last to receive potentially life-saving vaccines. There’s an understandable higher level of vaccine hesitancy among Blacks than any other group, thanks to a long history of abusive treatments by the medical profession (the Tuskegee study on syphilis; forced sterilization; and discriminatory clinical treatment). Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are dying from COVID at three times the rate of whites, but whites are getting vaccinated at significantly higher rates than people of color. Other obstacles to vaccination may include less internet access and lack of flexible work schedules to take advantage of scarce opportunities for appointments.
Friday, Governor Charlie Baker launched a public education initiative targeted to the most vaccine-resistant community, and it’s not a minute too soon. The campaign was produced by Donna Latson Gittens’ firm, MORE Advertising, which delivered the “Trust the Facts/ Get the Vax” messages in a large-scale, multi-lingual, multi-channel public awareness program. Optimally the Baker administration will accompany the education initiative with a program for transporting recipients to the immunization sites. (Full disclosure: Gittens is a friend and former Channel Five colleague. Her firm’s experience with public health campaigns goes back to the anti-smoking prototype, which had positive measurable results.)
My fresh experience with the Massachusetts COVID-19 vaccine system bears on this. Once my husband and I became eligible, we spent hours trying unsuccessfully to find available slots – starting right after midnight the first day, into the wee hours of the next morning, trying random sites farther and farther away from our home. We took a break, then repeated the cycle. Again and again. Then a friend called, having just scored a slot at Walgreens in Roxbury. She shared the URL. We returned to the internet and got dates for both first and second doses.
In the days leading to our appointment, we alternated between relief at our accomplishment and guilt that, by going into Roxbury for the vaccine, we might be taking it from low-income, under-served Blacks possibly more at risk than we. But, if we somehow scheduled elsewhere, what guarantee would we have that our Roxbury slots would go to the people most in need? We orbited the dilemma, uncomfortably.
Practicality prevailed. On the designated day, we went to our appointment and were vaccinated immediately and painlessly. We waited the requisite 15 minutes for possible allergic reaction, then prepared to head home. As we looked down the lines of those waiting for their jabs and those waiting after being vaccinated, the message was clear. Most of the Walgreens shoppers were Black, and most of those there for shots were white. It was very unsettling.
This episode is just a tiny but powerful representation of the huge diversity challenges our society faces every day, in virtually every community and aspect of human endeavor. The message of Black History Month should drive us 365 days a year.