Niyah West/ Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

There is a dominant opinion in New York City that if you are not yet vaccinated, you are an anti-vaxxer. Vaccines have been available since December 2020, and for roughly two months the city has been enforcing a vaccine mandate covering those entering certain locations like restaurants and gyms. NYC Department of Education employees and healthcare workers are also required to be vaccinated, among others. Those who do receive the vaccine are eligible for a $100 incentive. So the question remains: what is motivating some people to remain unvaccinated?

The obvious answer has been that they must be anti-vaccine. But sometimes the obvious answer is not the accurate one. This perspective may be true in other states or even other parts of New York, but within the five boroughs the story is different. The “anti-vaxxers” of NYC aren’t the stereotypical white, Republican, conspiracy theorists we often see on television and social media pushing dangerous falsehoods. In fact, the Black population of NYC has the lowest vaccination rate across the five boroughs with only 48% of Black residents having received at least one dose of the vaccine. These people aren’t widely spreading misinformation on social media, nor are they going to anti-vax protests, boycotting restaurants or even watching Fox News. However, the numbers speak for themselves.

Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado headed to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where only 55% of residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, to hear the unvaccinated explain themselves.

Mistrust

“I don’t like the system. I had vaccines before, I [got] vaccines for medical reasons. But this vaccine, there is something about it that I don’t feel safe with. They have an aim, some aim they have. These people are wicked people. They’ve enslaved Africans and foreigners. They are wicked for no reason and when they are done, they give them a Bible. It’s not right. I don’t want nothing to do with them,” said a 60-year-old man who wished to remain anonymous.

It’s his mistrust of the healthcare system that has kept him from receiving the vaccine, one that invokes the U.S.’s very real and very abusive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. 

“There was no sphere of American medicine in which African Americans were not — did not — have their bodies appropriated or their body tissues appropriated or were forced into research, research that was often quite crude and harmful,” Harriet Washington, author of “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” told NPR. 

Repeatedly throughout history, Black bodies have been used as experiments for the benefit of a white-dominated and deeply flawed healthcare system. Think back to the early 1900s when the Tuskegee syphilis experiment used poor African American sharecroppers to study how syphilis got worse if left untreated — and told them they were receiving free health care. And it was only last year when two French doctors came under fire for saying they wanted to test the tuberculosis vaccine as a treatment for Covid-19 in Africa on sex workers. 

Fears of the Covid-19 vaccine among the Black population are real and should be taken seriously, rather than mocked or derided.  

“I understand [the unvaccinated] concerns, but hopefully they’ll get on board if they see more of their family and friends that are doing well. That [so-and-so got the vaccine] two months ago, three months, and they’re still here,” said Micheal Hill, also a Crown Heights resident. He recently received the vaccine, but many of his friends and family have not; they also harbor a deep mistrust in the American healthcare system.

“We had the Tuskegee experiment [which was] so horrible, you know, experimenting on Black men. So there’s some skepticism, I understand the skepticism, but we have the flu shot out there, there’s other vaccinations that we had to take when we were small and we’re still here,” he said. That’s what he said he tries to remind his loved ones. 

Accessibility 

Another reason why many in these communities haven’t gotten their vaccine is because of a lack of accessibility. We have previously reported on the lack of vaccine accessibility in Queens Village and the Rockaways. There, we first learned there were many reasons why people couldn’t get vaccinated. They didn’t have time to wait in lines, make appointments or simply because they didn’t know where to go (there were only two vaccine sites at the time). 

In Crown Heights, the issue is similar, people can’t get vaccinated for the same reasons, but when they do, the vaccine they want may not be available. 

Niyah West, another resident of Crown Heights, got vaccinated over the summer. She was skeptical at first, but decided after doing research that she was comfortable getting Pfizer’s vaccine.

“We first had access to Johnson & Johnson, only we didn’t have access to Moderna or Pfizer. I had to change my zip code just to get Pfizer and other people had to change theirs to get Pfizer,” she said. “So that’s no mistake. If you go to Franklin, you get Pfizer. But if you were here in Crown Heights in Utica, you had mostly Johnson & Johnson.”

Lack of vaccine choice is an ongoing problem. Out of the five vaccine sites in Crown Heights, only one offers all three vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J). Another only offers Moderna, another just Moderna and Pfizer, and the last two only have J&J. 

This is problematic, as Johnson & Johnson is the most distrusted vaccine following factory mixups and fears of blood clots, not to mention lower efficacy rates compared to Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. However, its one-and-done nature makes it a great option for many populations, whether they are time pressed or averse to getting two shots.

What can we do?

From free sports tickets, money or MetroCards, New York City’s concerted effort to get people vaccinated using freebies has made inroads. Yet some won’t budge. Perhaps, as former vaccine-skeptic West said, easing the division between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated is key. 

“I think it’s going to have to take a lot more transparency for people to get the vaccine. And in a way that’s healthy and not judgmental because it’s very divided right now,” she said. 

If you know someone who hasn’t been vaccinated, you can make it easier by accompanying them to a clinic. You can also counter the vaccine disinformation (more on that here). It can even be as simple as sharing your story with others. Or sharing this one, to start.

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