When I was in my early 20’s I spent a year working for a grant program funded to the Psychology Department of a local university. This was one of a number of grants to study the effectiveness of Head Start in helping underprivileged preschoolers prepare for kindergarten. Head Start was fairly new, but had been around long enough to be able to see if there was value in continuing the program. We worked in teams that tested 4-year-olds at the beginning of a year and then again at the end of a year. We used the Preschool Inventory, a modified version of the Stanford Binet IQ test (modified to allow for nonverbal responses), and a sociometric test to look at socialization between children (who was popular, who was socially well adjusted, who was socially isolated). Everything was scored and coded and sent off to Washington. DC. Data proved that Head Start was quite effective at doing what it was designed to do.
But, I want to talk about one little boy we met in Utica, NY when we gave that sociometric test. To give the test we had a Polaroid camera and we took a picture of each child in the Head Start class. We arrayed the photos on a table in front of the child and we asked them to pick out their best friend, their second best friend and their third best friend. We tabulated all of the answers and came up with a graphic showing the connections between the children in the classroom by posting the pictures on poster paper and drawing arrows to show the children’s choices. The child with the most arrows was obviously the most popular, the child with the least arrows or no arrows was the child with social difficulties, the loner or the shunned. Interesting stuff.
One little guy was afraid to have his picture taken with that Polaroid camera. The teacher told us that the children had been given shots the day before. She also told us that this child was abused at home and seemed to have few verbal skills, which suggests that he did not get much positive parental attention. In fact the child’s abuse had been documented and the child removed from parental care for a time. This little boy refused to have his photo taken so we pulled him aside. We had him watch each time we took a photo. We showed him each photo when it finished developing. Although he watched every child as his or her picture was taken and he saw each picture after it developed, he could not bring himself to let us take his picture. He was certain that despite the fact that every child got a photo, he would get a shot. We had to wait several days, until the fear of the shot wore off and the children’s pictures were displayed in the classroom and admired by all before he would let us take a picture and do the sociometric test properly. I have never forgotten how strong the distrust was already in such a young child.
So when grown people say they won’t have the COVID vaccine because of the wrongs done to black folks at the Tuskegee Institute I hear them. They seem to believe that white people will be given valid vaccines and that there will be some kind of switch up when a nonwhite person gets inoculated. Or they believe that the vaccines were somehow only tested on white folks. Some people say they are waiting to see if the shots work or if there is a bad reaction coming somewhere down the line. And why wouldn’t they. The Tuskegee experiments, if you could call them that, began during the Great Depression in the 1930’s and weren’t exposed or ended until 1972. Being in the study was basically a death sentence and resulted in the spread of syphilis as well. This is an all round disgusting bit of American History.
Now we need those who were once abused and are most at risk for serious outcomes from COVID to get inoculated and they, like that little four-year-old in Utica, NY, are reluctant. It is true that the vaccines were rushed into use without the kind of longitudinal study that would have been optimal. It is true that those of us who have been inoculated are guinea pigs, in a sense. It appears the shots won’t kill us and they do offer some protection from the virus, but we don’t know for sure how much protection or for how long. Perhaps we will see future side effects, although most likely they would have appeared by now.
To get to normal, health officials would like everyone to get vaccinated. We have the example of the polio vaccine which ended polio around the world. This current virus has been so virile that our economy is suffering and could continue to suffer until we can feel safe working, shopping, schooling, and socializing as we did before COVID. With so many at-risk people worried that the shots involve some kind of bait and switch the economy is likely to be slowed for some time. Travel, events like concerts and weddings, races for charity, entertainment venues, restaurants and bars are all slowing their roll because vaccinations have not reached herd immunity levels. Infection rates are down, so it is possible that enough people have been vaccinated to make a reset possible but everyone worries that if we let down our guard their could be another surge in cases ahead.
Clearly we need to inoculate the world, which capitalism seems to make more difficult. Profits will be lost, patents will become worthless; what is a pharmaceutical company to do? But this dilemma of people who refuse the vaccine even when it is available is vexing. Despite understanding the distrust of some, it makes you just want to give people a shake, to say that this is different, to ask them to please, please, please get vaccinated.
A reaction to former abuse does not explain the reluctance of all Americans either. We have Tucker Carlson saying on Fox that the number of vaccination deaths is higher than is being reported. He tells us that over 3000 people have died from the vaccine which is not what the data says.
He gins up fear on the right, in people who were already convinced by officials that the disease was always exaggerated and that masks violated their civil rights, so that now they join the ranks of anti-vaxxers who plan to refuse all vaccinations. Why would a man with a big megaphone twist data and offer bad health advice? What payoff does that have for the right? Why doesn’t someone this dangerous lose his job?
The wall we have hit in this country; the wall stopping progress with getting people to get vaccinated is obviously a strong one. It’s built of complicated truths and falsehoods. I do hear some good ideas being discussed for reaching those who are not vaccinated, but it is looking like we will have to resume normal life under less than great conditions and hope that there is not another spike in COVID infections in the Fall. We also have to worry that the longer COVID rages elsewhere around the world the greater the danger that a variant will make us start all over with the search for an effective vaccine. This has been a serious pandemic, long lasting, a killer; and it interrupted every part of our lives. If a simple vaccine will help us put this disease behind us we can only beg those who are reluctant or who refuse to please get over yourselves or America’s bad history and get your shot/s.
As I publish this I am watching #VAXLIVE