As vaccines are now being rolled out across the UK, Black people are questioning not only whether they should take it, but also the intergity of the vaccine. Does it have their welfare at heart? Whilst vaccines historically have done a lot of good for communities in battling against disease, it cannot be forgotten that science and medical trials under the umbrella of “colonial medicine” do not have a flattering past in the context of Black Atlantic diasporic peoples. However, we also know that for the vaccine to have maximum impact Black and Brown communities need to take part as well. We are the global majority and the vaccine will essentially fail without us. Coronavirus disproportionately impacts Black Africans and Caribbeans but also South Asians. Without everyone’s participation, there could come a day when people are laying blame for the continuation of Coronavirus in the UK on ethnic minority groups that don’t trust it.
Despite being tagged to a YouTube video (urgh), an ill-thoughtout tweet that went viral by Small Axe star Letitia Wright asked questions about the integrity of a vaccine, only for her to later delete the tweet/her account when the torrents of abuse came.
The disproportionate outcomes with the Coronavirus show Black people in the UK and the United States as part of the groups most likely to die from the disease. In Britain, a Channel 4 documentary entitled Is COVID Racist? shows that it’s not the disease as a singular entity that is killing us off at a disproportionate rate, but entrenched inequality, including poverty and structural racism. The first ten NHS staff to die from COVID-related afflictions were from a Black, Brown or ethnic minority background. A 100% death rate is unheard of and now two thirds of NHS deaths from the virus are from a Black, Brown or ethnic minority background.
By itself, Coronavirus is not racist but the environmental factors that plague Black and Brown people are, which then adds to the biological weathering: from nearly 3 in 5 ethnic minority UK households in poverty, to being stopped and searched on the way to work, these are the sorts of things that consistently add to the biological weathering.
When we look at the history of science in the West in the context of the Black Atlantic diaspora, it is not pleasant reading. Surveys done in both the United States and England show a mistrust in this vaccine with Black and Brown groups, whilst white people seem more likely to get the vaccine at large. With specifically Black communities, why they are less likely to get the vaccine could be a whole number of factors: from the history of experimentation on Black people throughout the colonial era to how Black people have been treated during the pandemic and lockdowns by society as a whole. Really, to think (all) institutions have your best interest at heart comes with degrees of privilege. In this case, one could conclude, a white privilege.
Growing up as I have, around Caribbeans who have a very real experience of white supremacy on those islands, but also when they came to this country as immigrants, it’s not really surprising to see scepticism. Caribbean interraction with white public bodies has rarely been positive. But vaccines have been one of the most effective things to help communities in the last century. However, there have been mistakes; and for Black communities, there have been outright acts of violence committed against us in the name of science. Despite a good safety record, there is a history of untold untaught horrors committed against Black people in the name of science and public good. It would do us well to not lump their scepticism of vaccinations with the anti-vaxxers that get their info from YouTube hacks. Black people asking questions about vaccines can be viewed as a Black lives matter issue, since there is a legacy of poor medical treatment and dubious practices.
To understand the roots of why there are activist movements to make Black lives matter, we need to understand the racial pseudoscience that underpinned colonial racial thinking. Even prior to colonialism as we know it, contempt for Black dignity is beyond reasonable doubt. Bristol University professor Olivette Otele writes about how European fourteenth century medical scholars drew on Aristotle’s ideas about blood and heat, arriving at the conclusion “that the milk of black women had more nutrients… the body heat of dark and dusky women rendered their milk more digestible and therefore better quality for the child” (2020: 28).
However, the thinker that has done untold damage to how Africans are seen was Edward Long, a slaveowner and the son of a slaveowner, with his ideas about Black people and Africa widely accepted as scientific fact in his day, even though he was not even a scientist. His book The History of Jamaica donned the African continent as “the parent of everything that is monstrous in nature” (Long, 1744: 383) with many sections denouncing Blackness and Africanness as inferior and less than human. The fact he spent twelve years in the Caribbean gave the audiences of the 18th century some “certainty” he was credible. Echoes of his work can be seen in novels that came after him by writers, including Joseph Conrad, H.G Wells and Bram Stoker. Poisonous racist science was also perpetuated by medical professionals. In the late 1700s, an English physician by the name of Charles White (1799) provided empirical science for the hierachies of race, claiming Black people had a seperate origin to white people, namely Black people came from primates and white people did not.
In Black and British, Professor David Olusoga says that the first user of Victorian “new racism” (2017: 349) was an essayist and critic called Thomas Carlyle. In 1849, he pens an essay called ‘The Negro Problem’.
See this extract:
“…till the European white man first saw them, some three short centuries ago, those islands had produced mere jungle, savagery, poison reptiles and swamp malaria till the white European first saw them, they were, as if not yet created; their noble elements of cinnamon — sugar, coffee, pepper, black and gray, lying all asleep, waiting the white Enchanter, who should say to them, awake!” (Carlyle, 1849)
Another thinker in this field was French novelist Arthur de Gobineau (1853), writing “… the Polynesian negroes, the Samoyedes and others in the far north, and the majority of the African races, have never been able to shake themselves free from their impotence.”
According to Emma Dabiri (2019), he was famous for his views on Aryanism and the concept that Black people were privileged for being allowed to exist on the lowest rungs of the racial order. Additionally, he was an aristocrat most famous for helping to legitamise racism through the use of scientific theory and “racial demography”, moreover, developing the theory of the Aryan master race.
The ideas perpetuated by these academics, medical experts and so forth underpinned colonialism and enslavement. It put Black life at the bottom of the pile. We are still living with this legacy today… from overpolicing Black communities, to low expectations of Black students (Busby, 2018). This is what allowed J. Marion Simms to experiment on enslaved Black women in pursuit of what today is called gynaecology, with his unethical torturous practices. Yet, since there were intellectual justifications made by academics prior, these acts could be carried out without a thought. In the eyes of the law and in public consciousness, Black people were subhuman in colony and metropole. And when the US Public Health Service gave a number Black Americans syphilis (1932-1970) in the Tuskegee Study, the pseudoscience that permeated through enslavement ran rampant, pertinently in the thick of Jim Crow Laws that weren’t abolished until 1965.
The case of Henrietta Lacks and her family in the United States is another example of contempt for Black life; where her cells were taken from her before she died. They were used to study diseases without her permission and shared around the world. Moreover, in the years of French colonialism in Africa, what about the horrific experimentations carried out on Black African people? There is a precedent behind current mistrust.
Black Atlantic diasporic vaccine scepticism may be inspired by the trend set by history but it also may have something to do with the present, where Black people continue to be treated with contempt by healthcare and medical services. Disproportionate deaths from Coronavirus is just one example. In the UK, Black people are four times more likely to be detained under The Mental Health Act (DoH, 2019/20) and Black women are five times more likely to die from childbirth or related complications (MBRRACE UK, 2019). Additionally, on the African continent itself, there has been discussion around concerns about a number of clinical trials such as the malaria trial by World Health Organization [WHO]. Furthermore, a legal battle between Pfizer, and Kano in Nigeria over the tests being done on Trovan, a drug to combat meningitis.
There is a Black history to clinical trials and science that isn’t being taught or widely known. This is the irony that the people disproportionately impacted by Coronavirus (significantly helped along by systemic inequality) are also the same people that need to take it. However, these same communities don’t trust the system because of history and a contemporary where the system has not worked for them. If the UK government wants Black people to take a vaccine (not necessarily this current one), they need to change the messaging around COVID, like government aides and advisors saying institutional racism doesn’t exist. Whilst the history articulated so far is damaging on racial grounds, there are also scientific histories written in violence in the context of gender, class, sexuality and disability as well – from electrock therapy to eugenics.
The story of Black communities’ historic interactions with western science/scientists is damning; the present contemporary narrative of healthcare’s interactions with Black UK and Black American communities is also damning and both are well evidenced, there’s lots of improvements to made on both sides of the pond and we can do better.
Carlyle, T (1849) “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London, Vol. XL., February 1849). Available from:
Dabiri, Emma (2019) Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane.
De Gobineau, J, A (1853) The Inequality of Human Races. London: William Heinemann. Available: https://ia800501.us.archive.org/27/items/inequalityofhuma00gobi/inequalityofhuma00gobi.pdf
Long, E (1774/2002). The History of Jamaica, Volume 2: Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. London: Ian Randle.
Olusoga, D (2017) Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Macmillan.
Otelle, Olivette (2020) African European. London: Hurst and Company, London.
White, C (1799) An account of the regular gradation in man, and in different animals and vegetables. Edinburgh: C, Dilly. Available: https://archive.org/details/b24924507/page/n3/mode/2up