As the nation ramps up its COVID-19 vaccination schedule, African-American communities are still disproportionately feeling the impact of the virus and are not getting the same access to the vaccine as other groups. The irony of all of this is that it was an African American who first introduced the underlying concept of vaccination to America in the early 1700s.
An enslaved person in Boston named Onesimus explained to his enslaver, Cotton Mather, the process of inoculation or variolation. Variolation was the ancient African practice of taking a small amount of the fluid from an active smallpox skin lesion of an infected person and transferring it to a wound on an uninfected person, thus inoculating that uninfected person. This is the central concept underlying vaccination that is in use today.
Onesimus’ ancient wisdom ultimately led to George Washington successfully inoculating the entire U.S. Continental Army against smallpox. Some historians have argued the decision to inoculate the American army ultimately was key to the United States winning the War of Independence.
Eventually, cowpox, a similar disease among cattle, became the source of “inoculum” used for treating smallpox. That basic strategy led to the eradication of smallpox across the planet and the birth of vaccination as an enormously effective strategy for the prevention of numerous diseases, particularly previously fatal diseases of childhood.
All of this came from Onesimus, an enslaved African man. However, more than 300 years after Onesimus’ history-changing revelation, African Americans have struggled to get the COVID-19 vaccine and continue to distrust the American medical establishment.
A poll commissioned by The California Endowment shows that demographic groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 are willing to take the vaccine, although many respondents are concerned about potential side effects and the lack of due diligence in ensuring the safety of the vaccine. African-American respondents were more skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine. That is not surprising given the egregiously racist history of medical institutions and professionals, working in concert with the government, to consciously mistreat us in experiments and deny us care.
African Americans in California were slightly less likely to agree that “the vaccine will be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19” (62%) than were other ethnic groups and were less likely to encourage friends and family to get it (50%). Among parents, 46% of African-American respondents said they’d want their children to receive the vaccine.
African-American respondents were also more likely than other groups to agree that the U.S. government does not care about the impact of COVID-19 on their communities (60%), and that the vaccine will cause more problems than the disease itself (44%).
We cannot begin to successfully unravel the layers of structural racism that continue to place African Americans and others directly in harm’s way from COVID-19 and so many other diseases if we don’t begin to tell the truth about our suppressed and whitewashed histories and start repairing the harm of generations of American racism.
We might start by paying tribute to the legacy of the enslaved African whose wisdom led to our hope of overcoming COVID-19. Let’s name California’s COVID-19 vaccination effort after Onesimus.
Dr. Anthony Iton is senior vice president of the California Endowment overseeing the 14 Building Healthy Communities projects. He has a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a law degree from the UC Berkeley.
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