Updated: May 12
As controversial as Brexit, the Covid-19 vaccination has become the focus of ethnic division and debate.
"Are you going to have the jab?”
This is one of the questions increasingly asked with the same sort of passion last heard around the time of the Brexit vote, and while the EU In/Out debate seems to have largely abated, the coronavirus question looks set to run and run.
I am a black man who has had to endure the initial lock-down furloughed from work and who has also been shielding, as I am considered clinically vulnerable. Cue months of repeat television, attempting to exercise at home (which is almost impossible in a small flat without a garden), trying out new recipes and suffering days of apparently endless tedium.
So, it was with some enthusiasm that I paid close-ish attention when the news of a Coronavirus vaccine was announced. I was also invited to have the jab early, partly because I am a key worker. A Covid-19 injection, I thought st this point, might mean that I could be protected against illness, as well as allowing me to travel with a vaccination passport.
However, I could not have imagined the strong, often vitriolic, opinions that I would then encounter in conversation with family and friends, both for and against taking the jab. No-one, as I was about to discover (and I mean no-one), was neutral on this topic once the vaccination discussion had started.
The anti-vaxxers claimed that the vaccine was made from the blood of aborted foetuses, was designed to give you the virus, was filled with nano-particles to track via GPS those who took it and that no panacea could work for everybody, as specialist treatments are needed for different genetic make-ups. Another argument I encountered was that, as science and medicine are inherently racist by not seeing differences between black and white people, the pharmaceutical sector simply opts for a “white” cure in any situation and black folk can just hope for the best as a result.
The person who made this particular argument to me continued to assert that if Serena Williams, the world’s greatest female athlete and one of the richest women in sport, had almost died in childbirth because her doctors failed to notice obvious complications, it does not exactly bode well for medicine in the context of the Covid-19 debate.
There have been other historical cases where black people have been subjected negatively to medical research. The Tuskegee so-called study, between 1932 and as late as 1972, saw black men with syphilis promised free medical care for taking part, only to then receive none while scientists observed the worsening effects of the disease on them. Before this, human zoos, popular in the 1870s and up to the 20th century, saw black people exhibited in cages or makeshift natural habits while the white paying public would attend to ogle, point or swoon over the spectacle.
Arguably the most famous person to receive this treatment was Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, famed for her large derrière, who was widely displayed and scientifically studied during her lifetime. Even after her death, it took more than 180 years before her body was released by the French so she could be rightly buried in her homeland.
So there is a long history to the understandable distrust of science on the part of many black people (and the above examples are those that we know of). How many other atrocities have been suffered by black people that are yet to be revealed?
Another anti-vaxxer case I encountered is that this cure-all vaccine has been developed too quickly. The principles of this argument are that flu jabs are still not 100% effective, while the polio vaccine was approximately 50 years in the making, smallpox about 70 and HIV protective medication around 30.
So, for me, it seems reasonable to respect the fact that many black people in the current climate are making the argument, “Let’s just wait and see…”
The pro-vaxxers have been equally vociferous in making their points, though their arguments have been more based on emotion and perceived moral responsibility than on spurious scientific claims. In this context, I have been accused of putting extra pressure on the NHS (huh?), of being selfish, small-minded and also placing others at risk by even considering the options available to me; of lacking in empathy and refusing (yes, refusing) to see the bigger picture (whatever that is).
I have also been accused of being irresponsible for even daring to think about not accepting such a potentially life-saving vaccine after it has been offered to me free of charge.
I have no time for such pro-vaxxer sanctimonious harping and less time for the scare-mongering of the anti-vaxxers. If the latter are so frightened of being tracked then they should hand in their mobile phones, bank and supermarket loyalty cards.
Rather, the issue for me is that I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. As taking the vaccine is not currently compulsory (and I hope it stays that way) it remains my choice as to what I do: to take it or not to take it. Equally, and as with Brexit, it remains entirely my choice whether to talk about or disclose my actions in the matter.
Having said that, I have now received my first vaccine dose, and am waiting for my booster shot, a decision I took based on what I think is right for me. I would much rather have the freedom to breathe freely, travel without restrictions, go to a theatre or art gallery, and meet up with and hug friends, rather than spend another six months (at least) masked-up, bored into depression and isolated from my family and friends.
It is also the case that I don’t want to keep talking about the vaccine and the issues that surround it. So kindly keep the conspiracy theorising or moralistic virtue-signalling away from me, as I simply want to await the easing of the lock-down in peace, though I am equally sure that this process will also be fraught with a plethora of other worries.
Whatever happens, heaven help us as we move on from all of this.