Considering how race complicates virtually every social/medical issue in America, is there any wonder the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine has become fraught with concerns over racial disparities? Given our nation’s troubled history in this area, what else should we have expected? Additionally, the distribution rollout has been unnecessarily complicated by the sheer ineptitude of the outgoing tRump administration.
On Friday January 15, “federal health officials sounded the alarm about a fast-spreading, far more contagious variant of the coronavirus that is projected to become the dominant source of infection in the country by March, potentially fueling another wrenching surge of cases and deaths.” The virus seemingly doesn’t care how much “virus fatigue” folks are experiencing, nor does it care if people wear masks or not, or even if people, for a variety of kooky reasons, are declining to take the vaccine … it’s like ‘Ol Man River, “it just keeps rollin’ along.”
But in the virus’s wake. a whole host of vital questions are going unanswered. Primary among them is the question of who should be first in line to receive that vaccine. While some posit those most at risk — the elderly, minorities, and those with pre-existing conditions — should be the cohort to follow frontline workers — such as healthcare and emergency service workers, supermarket and transit employees — others take the position that since young people are the most probable spreaders they should be first in line.
Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, said, “If we want to re-open the economy as quickly as possible safely, then we need to curb transmission as quickly as possible. Given that the primary source of transmission in the community is the 20-to-50 age group, then this is the group that needs to be targeted to reduce transmission as quickly as possible.”
However, Anthony Alberg, a University of South Carolina epidemiologist, disagrees.
“In this emergency situation we now find ourselves in, preventing deaths right now is a greater priority than the theoretical benefits of vaccinating healthy young adults first for benefits that will take place over a longer time horizon — time when clinicians and vulnerable people will die from COVID-19.”
Jennifer Reich, a University of Colorado sociologist who studies immunization, agreed with Alberg by saying she’s was uncomfortable “pitting different communities against each other in a theoretical debate over long-term vaccination strategy.”
Nonetheless, the debate rages on while the number of sicknesses and deaths continue to climb. While the pandemic has caused the life expectancy of white Americans to decrease from 78 to 77 years, the life-expectancy of blacks has decreased by two years, and Hispanics now have a three-year shorter lifespan due to the pandemic.
One study compared the rate of COVID-19–related deaths among various demographics. Non-Hispanic white individuals died at a rate of 38 per 100 000, and adjusting for age, the mortality rate relative to population size, the figure is 3.4-fold higher among Black individuals, at 131 per 100,000, or 3.3 times higher. Among Indigenous and Latino communities the death rate is 2.9 times higher at 125 per 100 000 individuals.
America’s dark past of medical experimentation on minorities and unequal access to healthcare compound the concerns of professionals and average citizens of color alike. “The people who need it the most are the same who don’t trust it,” said Sernah Essien of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, an international advocacy group working to ensure equitable vaccine access. “Without considering racial equity, we deepen the cracks that systemic racism has already created in our health care system.”
Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) has “recommended prioritization of racial minorities who are ‘worse off’ socioeconomically and epidemiologically. The World Health Organization (WHO) similarly cautioned that ‘colorblind’ allocation frameworks could perpetuate or exacerbate existing injustices. Both NASEM and WHO urge policy makers to allocate vaccines in ways that reduce unjust health disparities.”
How the vaccine distribution plays out over time — how much attention is paid to rectifying past racial/medical wrongs — is anyone’s guess. However, if the past is any indication persons of color once again might get the short end of the stick.