I, like many people, didn’t realize I would miss the stressful and fast-paced BC era—a.k.a. the time before the new coronavirus. Many miss the fun of packed sports arenas, including people sweating, screaming, singing, and rooting for their teams. Some people miss dance clubs, parades, concerts, and kissing strangers. What about being in a bar where friends start speaking louder as they drink more beer? In-person HIV/AIDS conferences? Hugging other activists, networking, hanging around with new friends in the hotel lobby, hunting restaurants or riding Uber with total strangers you met at the conference? What about being in churches—I mean Black churches—for long hours, singing out loud and dancing until Heaven literally comes down?
We are social animals. We strive to be in touch with each other; we miss each other. At least, I am speaking for myself: I miss you all.
While we reminisce on those good ole BC days, there is some hope in the back of our minds: that when we get the COVID-19 vaccine, we will get our lives back. I am one of those people clinging on to that hope of a vaccine at the horizon. However, the COVID-19 vaccine won’t be magic.
1. The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Not long ago, there was a discussion on whether anti-vaccine parents have the right to send their children to public school without having them get all necessary shots or if their kids should be banned from public education.
In the year 2020, when the medical community anticipated to have completely eliminated preventable diseases such as measles, both developed and developing countries have experienced spikes in measles among children. The increase of measles among children is directly linked to a decrease in children receiving vaccination. While the spike of measles cases in developing countries is often caused by limited access to vaccines, in developed countries like the U.S., it is caused by anti-vaccination ideology or “vaccine hesitancy.” The anti-vaccine movement claims that vaccinating children is directly linked to autism in children—a claim that has been debunked again and again.
President Trump himself is an outspoken anti-vaccine parent. He spent years spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, with the anti-vaccine movement, no disease gets eradicated.
As we cling to the hope of a COVID-19 vaccine to get our lives back, we must have a plan to educate the anti-vaccine movement and burst their conspiracy theories.
2. Skepticism About How Quickly the Vaccines Are Developed
Some people are worried that the U.S. government vaccine is being developed too quickly to be effective. Others are worried that President Trump may influence how fast a COVID-19 vaccine is developed to get reelected.
Jerome Kim, M.D., director general of International Vaccine Institute, told Devex, a global-development media platform, that when humans get COVID-19, they develop a strong immune response that protects them from future infections for some period of time. Kim explained that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be much easier to produce than a vaccine for HIV: “The immune system with HIV is always one step behind. It never really completely eliminates the virus. And that means that the target itself will be hard, because we can’t just copy the human immune system when we design the vaccine, which is what we’re doing with COVID-19."
Kim continued: "So we’re still searching, and we don’t know how to induce those responses. Whereas for COVID, there’ve been a number of successful trials protecting monkeys against COVID-19.”
Scientists developing COVID-19 vaccines have to keep the public updated on the COVID-19 vaccine development process.
3. Mistrust of the Trump Administration
Many Americans are concerned about the way President Trump has been downplaying the pandemic, calling COVID-19 a case of “sniffles,” a “Chinese virus,” and a hoax. On top of this, he has proposed widely debunked ideas like taking hydroxychloroquine and drinking or injecting bleach for COVID-19 treatment and prevention.
Also, many Americans are worried about how Trump has weakened the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as isolated the U.S. from international working groups on COVID-19 vaccine trials. He has also begun to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Other Americans suspect that President Trump is working with pharma companies to make a COVID-19 vaccine as fast as possible in order to make money for himself. This is, of course, a conspiracy theory. As a result, some people on social media have begun to share posts saying that they would only trust a Biden-sponsored COVID-19 vaccine.
4. Black People Mistrust Public Health Due to the History of Experimentation
The history of Black people’s mistrust of public health services is rooted in a long history of scientific racism. Black people have been used as guinea pigs for medical experiments.
The most documented event was the Tuskegee experiment. From 1932 to 1972, public health researchers conducted a human experiment known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. During this study, researchers lied to Black people that they were being treated for “bad blood” but did not treat their syphilis, instead deciding to follow the men’s untreated symptoms “until death.”
As we wait for a vaccine, public health officials must work with Black people to restore trust in public health services.
The Current State of Affairs
In a July virtual Congressional hearing, Anthony Fauci, M.D., the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the NIH, announced, “We feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021.” Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns over public mistrust in a vaccine.
“As we’ve been discussing over time, as researchers work to develop vaccines to protect against COVID-19, it’s important that the final FDA-approved products have the full confidence of the American people. A vaccine doesn’t help if people don’t choose to in fact be vaccinated,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., of Pennsylvania.
During the hearing, the heads of NIAID, the CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reassured members of Congress that they were working on a plan to boost “vaccine confidence” and have started community mobilizations around the vaccine trial sites. They expressed that they need more boots on the ground.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an August press conference, “There is no silver bullet at the moment.” World leaders can stop new outbreaks by practicing the “basics” of public health and disease control, he said: “Testing, isolating and treating patients, and tracing and quarantining their contacts. Inform, empower, and listen to communities. Do it all.”
Communities affected by HIV are the boots on the ground. We know firsthand the power of storytelling in promoting public health. We are organized, we have established platforms, and we have the power of social media. We must use our experiences to boost COVID-19 vaccine confidence and COVID-19 prevention communication.
We need to start right now by educating our communities, using storytelling instead of complicated messages, numbers, and statistics. We must start dismantling conspiracy theories and fake news. The CDC, NIH, and FDA have to include communities affected by HIV in the plan to boost vaccine confidence as key actors and invest in them to serve as boots on the ground. Public health officials must work hard to restore trust among Black communities. The road back to our lives “BC” is a rough road—the vaccine alone will not be a cure-all, and in the U.S. we must have a plan to address challenges related to vaccine acceptance.
We must commit to social distancing, wearing masks in public, and scaling up COVID-19 testing, treatment, and contact tracing to stop new COVID-19 outbreaks. Till then, we won’t have our good ole BC days back.