BOB GARFIELDThis is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. As Matt Motta said, stopping the pandemic's stranglehold on the United States may hinge on reframing the choices that face us. Writer Eula Biss, author of On Immunity and Innoculation, says that Americans shy away from a term like herd immunity because it conjures images of cattle corralled into a slaughterhouse. Thus the cognitive dissonance between individualism and mandatory vaccination. This proposes instead the term hive immunity to emphasize the collaboration and interdependence of a community solving a mutual problem. The Reverend Paul Abernathy is mobilizing his hive, the predominantly black and to underserved neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, to build black Americans trust in a vaccine. Father Paul enlisted community health deputies to encourage their neighbors to participate in the University of Pittsburgh's vaccine trials. Father Paul, welcome to OTM.
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYBob, it's so good to be with you. Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELDDepending on which survey you look at, between 50 and 70 percent of the public in general is willing to be vaccinated with one of these new COVID vaccines, but only 32 percent of black Americans. How did we get here?
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYIn my conversations in the community, I think there are three primary reasons why there's a lack of trust in the vaccines in the black community. First would be a history of clinical abuse. Now I think we can talk about things like the Tuskegee experiment and the mark that is left on the psyche of the African-American community. But we have to go beyond that, because there's the lived experience of clinical abuse, even in our own day and age. We can reference the studies about African-Americans being less likely to receive pain medication than whites and various other studies around health outcomes and the experiences of African-Americans in the health care system. And so this is the first reason.
A second reason would be a mistrust of government. People see government involved in the inception and distribution of this vaccine, and as they see that, they also again reflect on their experience with the government. Many failed government systems in in our communities, communities that are underserved, communities that have poor education, high unemployment rates, high rates of gun violence. And so it looks as though government policy has failed this community. And so when they see the government involved in vaccine, there's right away a mistrust of the vaccine because there's mistrust of the government.
And thirdly, I have heard people talk about a mistrust of corporate America. People understand that there are corporations that are developing vaccines. And so there's this sometimes notion that this vaccine is being pushed to make those who are rich, richer. Many people who don't have much they're not so willing to put themselves in a position to receive a vaccine ultimately to make somebody else rich. And so, just in my anecdotal experience, these are the three primary perspectives that I do believe cloud people's trust of these vaccines.
BOB GARFIELDYou're in Pittsburgh where there's yet another wrinkle that I believe has manifested itself, and that is that the universities are also viewed with suspicion because they're the primary funders of gentrification swallowing up whole neighborhoods. So, you're asked to go to a university to get your vaccine. And they're kind of already viewed with suspicion.
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYThere's no question about it. Universities, although, you know, very often they claim to be places of enlightenment. Whenever we really look into how they really, you know, live the citizenship in our communities out, it's very often detrimental to those who really suffer the most among us. I think it's also compounded by the fact that there have been historically many researchers who have come into our communities, who have conducted countless hours of research, and the results of that research has served our community in absolutely no way. It's got to be a reckoning for our relationship with these universities. We can't just say these universities are going to help us, you know, promote and disseminate the vaccine. We have to say if these universities are going to embrace their obligation to serve the most vulnerable in this time of great need, we have to do so in the context of a reckoning. That I think is part of a broader national reckoning, where we have to understand that there has been too much that's too injust for too long. This vaccine gives us an opportunity to begin to have those conversations on a more serious level.
BOB GARFIELDSo what you've described is, you know what, in a PowerPoint presentation they'd call headwinds. There are many obstacles to widespread acceptance of any of the COVID vaccines in the black community. What are you doing and what are you proposing to cut through those winds?
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYThe vaccine collaborative, there's weekly meetings essentially. Where community members and researchers are brought together to essentially strategize, plan and report out on the success of recent strategies implemented on the ground. And when the vaccine trials were made available, there was three percent minority participation. And so, we mobilized the community health deputies and set them out.
BOB GARFIELDNow, we're not just talking about apostles of mask wearing and social distancing. We are talking about where the rubber really meets the road. Vaccine experimentation. You mobilized people to actually sign up for clinical trials.
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYI've seen some of these community health deputies themselves initially were not warm to the idea of vaccines, in particular vaccine trials. You know, I've seen this community hub deputies actually go out and engage folks and really ask them the question: would you do this? And if not, why? And one of the things that's been most remarkable to see, you know, I can think of one example where a community health deputy posed the question, why really would you not do that? Well the woman answered, Well, you know, I haven't seen the results of any of this and I just don't trust it. You know, the response was, well, do you know this is phase three trials explaining that phase one trial is high risk, low benefit, but phase three trial is actually high benefit, low risk. If we could get you the results from phase one or phase two, could that help alleviate some of your concern about this particular Phase three trial? And you have to see the woman pause and say, you know, if you got me some of that information. I might consider it. And that's the kind of interaction that I've seen makes all of the difference on a street here in our community. After the first week we went from three percent to eight percent enrollment of minority participation. So that was the first indicator that we had that this method was actually much more effective than some of the other methods we had previously tried.
BOB GARFIELDIf you were the Sultan, what would you tell the people who are charged with the logistics of a vaccine rollout, particularly in predominantly black communities?
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYYes, I would tell those in charge of distribution that we've got to find those places that are, well, trusted places in the community that can become vaccine distribution sites. I know that there’s challenges with that, I know in terms of refrigeration, there's probably other logistical challenges. In addition to that, these efforts should really be done in coordination with community members who are essentially opinion leaders who are deputized to become champions of the vaccine. These are some of the things that I think can greatly help vaccine distribution in these communities.
BOB GARFIELDThey say, and it's become a commonplace, that with crisis comes opportunity. If the subject is broad mistrust of untrustworthy institutions with respect to the black community, with the stakes are so high, this seems like it could be a time provided the institutions behave equitably and responsibly and sensitively to actually regain or to win for the first time the trust that they have not enjoyed for, you know, two hundred and forty years.
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYThis, to me, moment in our history represents an opportunity for precisely just that. And when we look at this COVID vaccine, it's got to be about more than just COVID. It's got to be about how we not only end the pandemic as it relates to this disease, but how we also finally heal the epidemic of racial injustice in our nation.
BOB GARFIELDFather Paul, thank you.
FATHER PAUL ABERNATHYBob, thank you.
BOB GARFIELDFather Paul Abernathy is the founder of the Neighborhood Resilience Program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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