Black, Asian Britons signal global scepticism of Covid-19 vaccine jab

Past medical scandals fuel suspicion. How to build trust? What choices to make?

By Thomas L Blair 08 February 2021© rev 18-02-21

Dr Halima Begum

Black and Asian communities in Britain and worldwide are high on the pandemic hit-list. Yet surprisingly many are “vaccine sceptics”. Too often they are vilified for holding up coverage against the virus.

This blaming and shaming trend seems unfair to equality advocates. “We need to balance the conversation away from hesitancy, work with community leaders and address misinformation and boost vaccine confidence”, says Dr Halima Begum, director of the UK race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust.*

Vaccine hesitancy is a global trend, not just a “Black, Asian British thing”

Millions around the world are vaccine sceptics. In fact, they distrust pharmaceutical bosses, ill-informed politicians and perceived hostility and racism.

Annabel Sowemimo, a community health doctor, says entrenched health inequalities fuel their fears. Historical scandals about drugs being trialled on communities without proper consent have hurt them badly.

Sadakat Kadri,  a barrister and author of Heaven and Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law, said rumours of alcohol or pork in the vaccine affect many Muslims.  People feel their faith and cultural values are threatened.

Racial health disparities have a history

Henrietta Lacks

Deep rooted reasons for mistrust persist. Most alarmingly, US scientists stole the genetic cancer cells of African American tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks for medical research in the 1950s.** Then, there’s the unethical Tuskegee syphilis project in segregated Alabama, 1940 to 1972: US Public Health Service doctors intentionally did not treat African-American men infected with syphilis to study the course the disease.

Also, acting illegally in Nigeria, the Pfizer bio-pharmaceutical company agreed a $35 million settlement with Kano State. This, after 11 children died in a 1996 trial of an experimental meningitis drug. And two French doctors sparked an outcry in 2020. They suggested that Covid vaccines should be tested in African countries with less access to personal protective equipment.

What’s the antidote for vaccine hesitancy in Britain?

British health equality advocates accept that the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said he “is looking into vaccine-hesitancy skewed heavily towards Black Asian and minority ethnic communities”. But they press him for action now.

They say, too often politicians’ choices rely on intuition, ‘gut feeling’ and ill-formed stereotypes. “A colorblind policy hurts those who are most impacted,” said Dr. Begum. She wants urban areas, where many minority groups live, to be vaccinated first.

Terence Channer, an African-Caribbean healthcare lawyer said “We have the expertise. I call on the government to have designated vaccination centres manned by Black clinicians”.

Dr Priscilla Nkwenti, former chief executive of the BHA agency, speaks up for the well-being of marginalised communities. She wants action “to win their trust, allay fears and dispel myths and thus lead to increased uptake of health provision”.

Sharia law expert Sadakat Kadri advises devout sceptics that “Suspicion of authority and worries about what is halal [permissible] must be balanced by the fact that protecting others is a religious  obligation”.

Investment banker and diversity advocate Oluwole Wol Kolade is poised to make a difference. He is on the National Health Service-(NHS) Improvement board. Crucially, he chairs the Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital Charity, a historic charitable foundation with total assets of £600 million.

On the global front, the World Health Organisation aims to educate the public and allay fears. Officials call on nations, health care professionals, big tech social media, drug makers and medical laboratories to promote the safe-vaccine facts.

Urgent choices to make

Resolving vaccine hesitancy for the good of all is essential to achieve the widest coverage. In fact, the challenge is one of the greatest tests of societal cohesion and public trust.

But success requires hard, urgent choices. On the one hand, stop blaming and shaming communities of colour, faith and culture with whom you disagree. Pointing the finger has little effect.  Indeed, coercion and censorship of sceptics and their social media use may be unethical, harm race/faith relations and violate their human rights.

Instead, base their strategies on people-oriented action research, not just the  “hard-facts”.  It’s hard to solve a problem when you barely know what’s going on.

As a result, there some enduring lessons. Health ministers, immunologists, and cyber-security experts have an  essential role to play. They must learn to listen and communicate with people in clear, educating messages. Above all, community leaders must promote socially responsible science, civil discourse, and informed debate.


*Dr Halima Begum photo/from The Guardian

** Dying from an aggressive cancer, Henrietta Lacks had her highly prized genetic cells cultivated without informed consent or compensation to her family. Evidence shows her specimens were used in 10,000 medical science and commercial laboratories around the world.  Eventually, the invasion of her genetic privacy led to advances in cancer and polio prevention. In effect, rewriting the rules on bio-ethical healthcare. As a result, she is celebrated as the “mother of modern medicine”,  and cited in more than 60,000 scientific papers.



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