Hardships, horrors and hope: Reflections on a year of pandemic
This year has been like none other in my lifetime. The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it an unprecedented year for all of us. This year has taken a staggering and debilitating toll on our collective well-being. And yet, as the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the hardships, horrors and heartaches we've navigated together, as well as the ever-present hope of tomorrow that is ingrained in our humanity.
At the onset of this year, our president seemingly adopted a "Triple D" strategy: Deceive. Deny. Deflect. With every sound bite, he conspired to camouflage the deadly threat of the virus and appropriate the mounting death toll in its wake, as nothing more than incidental. Intermittently he'd make his very best effort, as an illusionist, to "keep hope alive" by falsely claiming that the virus was under control and we were "turning the corner."
As the pandemic raged, it became increasingly clear that Black and Brown communities were being disproportionately affected. African Americans were and are still contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than other segments of the community. We are also more likely to die from the disease. According to a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) report, in Chicago, more than 50% of COVID-19 cases and nearly 70% of COVID-19 deaths involve Black individuals, although Blacks make up only 30% of the population. Moreover, these deaths are primarily concentrated in just five neighborhoods on the city's South Side.
The burdens of poor health, limited access to nutritious food, high-density housing, soaring unemployment, and the inability to practice safe social distancing, are all contributing factors to the higher incidence of COVID-19 in these communities. Many of these factors were prevalent prior to the pandemic which has served to shine yet another spotlight on systemic quality-of-life disparities that exist throughout our nation.
I am encouraged by the research and resulting rollout of COVID-19 vaccines; however, the vaccines pose a new and different challenge for the African American community.
America has a well-documented history of unethical and malicious medical experimentation on people of color. Among African Americans, this history has fostered a tremendous mistrust of government. For example, most African Americans know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The study was conducted, between 1932 and 1972, by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As a native of Birmingham, I heard about the experiment in my youth. In Birmingham, our sentiments about the study were simple and straight-forward: "The government wants to experiment on Black people to help white people." As a result of the flagrantly callous abuses of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a heightened suspicion and aversion to all vaccines was imbedded into the cultural fabric of Black America.
Now, in the shadows of our country's history of merciless human experimentation, and still today under the influence of a president's Triple D leadership style, we face the challenge of convincing people of color to accept a potentially life-saving vaccine. Many of our most vulnerable citizens, like my father who is 96 years old, simply don't trust the government to care for them in the absence of an ulterior motive that also regards them as expendable.
My dad does trust his VA doctor; however, even his doctor has yet to convince him to take the vaccine.
An important question becomes: "How do we persuade a critical mass of Black and Brown people to set-aside our government's long-standing record of manipulating and abusing its most susceptible citizens, and then trust that government to now save our lives?
It is not an easy task. I believe the conversation must focus on the inevitable reality of "what will happen if we don't." African Americans will continue to die from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. The only way to slow the spread of the pandemic is to be prayerful and trust God, continue wearing our masks and social distancing, roll up our sleeves … and get vaccinated.
For the good of my family, my grandchildren, my church and my friends, I will also roll up my sleeve and get vaccinated.
• The Rev. Dr. Nathaniel L. Edmond is retired pastor of Second Baptist Church of Elgin.