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Thu Dec 3, 2020, 04:15 PM

vaccines, race, and our response to them.

I recently had an exchange that prompted an internal dialogue, and I’d like to solicit thoughts from y’all on it.

I’m a faculty member at a public university. One of the administrative groups on which I serve was recently given a seminar by several med school faculty on COVID vaccines. The discussion covered how the vaccines are being developed, how their safety is being assessed, their effectiveness, and their distribution. It was very enlightening.

It also addressed the basic problem that many won’t want to be vaccinated. Many people think vaccines are inherently unsafe or a scam for Big Pharma to make money. Others think COVID isn’t a thing, or maybe it is, but it isn’t serious. Still others might have no problem with vaccines in general, and might understand the situation we’re in, but might fear that this vaccine has not been sufficiently tested.

This last part generated some discussion. Some called for a very sympathetic and cautious tone – we should encourage people to get the vaccine, but we must be sensitive to concerns others may have.

I read Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World right after it came out in 1996 – I was in grad school at the time – and it changed the way I teach. Science is awesome. Not only does it reveal some breathtaking stuff, it works. This became central to my large-enrollment general ed courses; whether they remember the differences between two randomly-selected dinosaurs won't help my students live better lives, but being able to discern real science from pseudoscience absolutely will. Surely, concerted efforts can lead us away from the kind of future Sagan feared – one of widespread ignorance of science and acceptance of charlatans who promote dangerous pseudoscience.

Which is, unfortunately, where we are now.

My tolerance for people who deny physical reality has thus dropped sharply. This is especially true when one person’s denial might harm others. You don’t worry about getting whooping cough? Whatever – but if you get it, someone else might get it from you. Think climate change is a Marxist hoax? We all have to live with the consequences of the inaction your denial promotes.

Indeed, with vaccines, I’ve personally encountered people who have been harmed by science denialism. In some cases, they’re people who weren’t vaccinated and ended up sick with a preventable disease. Either that, or it happened to someone they love. I also once encountered someone who’d been vaccinated as an infant, only to be moved into specialized classes and programs for autism spectrum children when this person’s parents were told vaccines cause autism. But this person was never autistic in the first place – a fact that didn’t emerge until many years later, when someone finally had the good sense to screen this person for it.

So at this point in the discussion, I spoke up. (“Spoke” is metaphorical; the exchange took place over email.). I know full well that trying to argue with a denialist does no good, and can actually backfire – those with denialist beliefs actually dig in and hold their beliefs more firmly than before. I always prefer to encourage rather than punish. Carrots are better than sticks in most cases. But if came down to whether unvaccinated students should be allowed in our classes, we might have to wield more sticks. If such a student wants to enter my classroom, they’d better have a good medical reason for not having been vaccinated. Otherwise, they’re not coming in.

Harsh? Perhaps. The reflection of an arrogant scientist? I’d like to think not, but others may see it differently. But this is a health emergency. We can’t just shrug our shoulders when understanding and sympathy fail. It’s no different from no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.

But then a colleague raised a point I hadn’t considered. There’s a long history of the medical community taking advantage of people of color. To this day, parts of the African American and Native American communities are wary of modern medicine – not out of skepticism or denialism, but because there’s a serious legacy of institutional racism that is still manifest in the way health care is delivered. Go to a hospital, get treated like dirt, and you’re not likely to come back.

She had a good point, and I said so. This, I stated, would definitely be a carrot-over-stick situation. I never said (nor do I believe) that people should be forced to get the vaccine, especially if it isn’t available nearby for free. Nevertheless, herd immunity only occurs if a high proportion of people in a community are immune. Below that threshold, those who can’t be vaccinated (newborns, people with compromised immune systems, people with allergies to the vaccine’s ingredients) are left vulnerable to infection. This is the sort of situation where physical reality has to be granted some authority.

But still, it got me thinking – are there acceptable reasons beyond a frail immune system or allergy to not get a vaccine, knowing that a high vaccination rate is needed to protect the community as a whole?

Would I really want to look a student of color in the eye and say, “yes, your community has been systematically victimized by medical science for a very long time. I understand your reluctance to trust it. But you really do need to be vaccinated.”? Students of color have problems enough on most college campuses, especially here in the upper Midwest. Do I want to compound it by acknowledging the historical underpinning of these problems, only to insist they disregard it?”

I don’t know. Just something I’m thinking about. It’s abstract for now I suppose, but if the vaccine becomes available in the next few months, I might have to confront the issue directly.

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Reply vaccines, race, and our response to them. (Original post)
cab67 Dec 2020 OP
judeling Dec 2020 #1

Response to cab67 (Original post)

Thu Dec 3, 2020, 04:34 PM

1. This is an issue

For sure. The treatment of marginalized communities has fed a distrust of authority.
But over sensitivity is not the direction to go. What I'd like to see leaders of the current racial justice movement engaged to demand that they get their proper place in line.
This is the perfect time and issue to start correcting the lumping into science the distrust of authority. We have communities of color unduly impacted, having the leadership demand access to the vaccine can turn some of that around.

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