The Covid-19 pandemic had a severe and disproportionate impact on Black people in the U.K. They were twice as likely as white people to catch the virus and were also overly represented in the numbers of those working in frontline services, particularly the National Health Service (NHS).

Latest reports show that over 30 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the vaccine so far, with millions more to go. Prior to the news of the Covid-19 vaccine being readily available to UK residents, many Black people were sceptical about any vaccination programme and expressed doubts about receiving a jab.

Growing up, I was unsure of my feelings regarding vaccinations. There was a lingering fear instilled by family and close friends who, when I gathered the courage to ask, shared anecdotes about their experiences with vaccines. I also heard unsettling stories about historical interactions between global pharma and Black communities across the world. However, this is just one, among a number of reasons why many Black people just don’t trust vaccines. I remember how my father was opposed to what he would refer to as ‘unnecessary jabs’ at school. His disapproval is one of the reasons why I developed resentment towards any type of jab that claimed to shield me from various illnesses or diseases. So, it’s no surprise that when I heard about the Covid-19 vaccination I was extremely cynical, like many others from my community.

Digging deeper

Vaccine Africa

According to a survey conducted by University College London and the London School of Economics, 64% of young Black people in England are ‘vaccine-hesitant. The Office for National Statistics study stated that 44% of Black adult respondents were hesitant compared with 8% of White adults.

‘In a sense it is rather challenging to understand why some Black people are vaccine-hesitant, as we’re not a monolith, meaning that there are different reasons for vaccine hesitancy,’ says Dr. Chinedu Ike-Morris, NHS Junior Doctor. 

‘People remain sceptical due to a range of reasons from misinformation, to religious reasons. However, one thing that bounds us all together and fuels the distrust today is institutional racism,’ he adds.

The pandemic has ultimately exposed the racial disparities within UK healthcare. Institutional racism plays a huge part in the community’s interaction and overall relationship with the healthcare system. As a whole, the NHS has a poor track record on outcomes for Black people. Studies and reports have shown poor satisfaction rates and a lack of access to healthcare services.

When referring to the Black community’s hesitancy regarding vaccinations, it’s important to look at the history of unethical practices and experiments that we have endured over the years. Understanding history is key to finding out why some among us remain suspicious about vaccinations as a whole. Failure to do this can lead to continued scepticism and mistrust.

Mistrust and stereotypes

Some right-leaning tabloid publications in the UK have appeared to harbour questionable motives when they publish disparaging headlines about the Black community’s response to vaccinations. This has often happened without any analysis or historical context. Sadly, it perpetuates negative stereotypes about Black people and also feeds into sections of the tabloid press’ audiences that may already hold negative preconceived notions. These attitudes undermine any efforts to build a better understanding of why this inertia is prevalent among Black people.

‘Tackling the Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy is going to take multiple efforts. All of us must come together to understand and address the concerns that are causing the Covid-19 hesitancy,’ says Dr. Melva Thompson-Robinson, Professor and Executive Director at the Centre for Health Disparities Research. 

‘One of the big reasons that there is Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in Black communities is because we are asking these communities to trust organisations that have not been trustworthy in the past. In the US, it goes beyond the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and the story of Henrietta Lacks.’ 

‘We have to make sure that the messaging about the Covid-19 vaccine is based on where communities are and understanding their reasons for hesitancy. This messaging needs to also come from and include members of the Black community. These community members need to see and hear from persons that they trust and to a point persons who look like them,’ she adds. 

Social media timelines have been awash with humorous content on the potential side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines. Some of this serves as much-needed comic relief during these difficult times. However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that beneath the comedy lies some real and deeply rooted concerns. These concerns are based on a long history of ill-treatment and targeted abuse at the hands of colonial authorities, government bodies, and powerful pharmaceutical companies, both in Africa and its global diaspora. 


Tuskegee Syphillis

One of the most talked-about examples of these unethical health practices is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the US public health services oversaw a 40-year programme to observe the effects of untreated syphilis by injecting over 600 Black men from rural parts of Alabama with the infection – without their consent. This experiment only came to an end in 1972, and although all of the original participants have since passed away, their descendants continue to make sure that their stories get told.

The Chemical Biological Warfare programme, South Africa

In contrast, an incident that isn’t as widely known is The Chemical Biological Warfare programme (CBW) also known as Project Coast which took place in South Africa during the 1980s and early 1990s. During the 1998 programme hearing in Cape Town, there was evidence of science being subverted to cause disease and undermine the health of Black communities. Cholera, botulism, anthrax, chemical poisoning, and the large-scale manufacture of drugs of abuse, allegedly for purposes of crowd control, were amongst the projects of the programme. 

According to the Plague War report, during Project Coast cholera strains were released into water sources throughout specific South African villages. Lethal chemical and biological weapons that targeted African National Congress (ANC) political leaders and their supporters, as well as populations living in the poor Black townships, were developed. These weapons included an infertility toxin to secretly sterilize the black population, and poison concealed in products such as chocolates and cigarettes. 

Polio Vaccination, Nigeria

In 2003, the Polio vaccination boycott took place in northern Nigeria. The boycott lasted for just over a year and was fuelled by influential political, religious and academic leaders speaking on fears of the vaccines being deliberately contaminated. Therefore, urging parents not to let their children be vaccinated.

The boycott led to an increase in polio infection and death rates and had long-term effects on Nigeria’s Polio rates.  According to the  World Health Organisation (WHO) during the year of the boycott, Nigeria reported 355 polio cases. The number of reported cases increased to 833 in 2005 and peaked in 2006 at 1,144 cases. 

Misinformation and education

Spreading fake news regarding vaccinations is extremely dangerous and can sometimes result in avoidable deaths. To tackle this, the UK government recently announced that they would be cracking down on misinformation about Coronavirus. Specialist units set up to monitor the spread of Covid-19-related fake news were reported to be dealing with at least 10 on a daily basis. 

‘I received all sorts of messages that were spreading misinformation about the vaccine. However, I decided that due to my age and health concerns it was best for me to do my own research. This is what lead me to get my vaccine,’ says Debbie*, a 59-year-old from London. 

Black Vaccination Campaign

There have been concerted efforts to counter misinformation being spread on social media by influential platforms and individuals with an extensive reach. Such has been the scale of fake news that respected actor and comedian, Sir Lenny Henry recently wrote an open letter encouraging Black Britons to take the jab. Sir Henry has been supported by other high-profile Black figures such as actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, radio personality Trevor Nelson, musician KSI and author Malorie Blackman, as signatories.

The letter, which is backed by the NHS, has also been turned into a short film.

We are in this together

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on Black people in the UK so of course, any sincere and lasting solution proposed by the authorities is welcome and should be embraced. However, it is important to understand why there might be hesitation from some members of the Black community. The UK government should therefore continue doing more to allay those genuine fears and provide assurances

**This article does not intend to discourage anyone from taking the vaccine or invalidate their fears. It is however essential for everyone to conduct their own research, and only seek information from reliable sources in order to make the best-informed decision for themselves.