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How Trump and the Right’s anti-vaccine propaganda is killing Black people

OPINION: As Donald Trump and Republicans continue their misinformation campaign around COVID-19, Black lives in red states literally hang in the balance

As the COVID-19 variant strain begins to spread throughout the nation, almost 99% of the time it attacks the unvaccinated. On top that, misinformation politics around the virus and the vaccine in the United States is becoming deadly, particularly for Black people. Former President Donald Trump and his legions on Fox News and other conservative outlets have been spreading anti-mask, anti-virus protocols, and anti-vaccinations propaganda since the beginning of the pandemic.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and a new threat has emerged: the delta variant, which is more lethal, far more contagious and physically damaging to those that survive it is here with a vengeance. 

They say all politics is local, well such is the case for COVID-19. If you look at the data a disturbing trend becomes apparent: the states with the lowest number of vaccinations per capita, like Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, are being hard hit. Worse, the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 has spread rapidly in 70 countries. According to Professor Jennifer Grier of the University of South Carolina, COVID-19 vaccines offer a safe and reliable path to immunity against both the older strains of coronavirus and against emerging strains, especially the new delta variant.

For Black and brown communities getting vaccinated has been a huge challenge. Celebrities like Kerry Washington, athletes like LeBron James, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and Oprah Winfrey have all taken to the airwaves to encourage Black people to get the vaccine. There is even a new rap song “Vax That Thang Up” that hit the airwaves to encourage younger Black Americans to get vaccinated.

All of these efforts had one goal: assuring Black communities that the vaccine is both safe and effective. Yet, numbers in states with high rural and urban populations of Black Americans are still alarmingly low. This problem is dangerous and it is deadly because of the comorbidities that Black and brown populations (Latino, Indigenous, etc.) often have with obesity and hypertension.

A vaccine information sheet is seen as Andrea Moore and Alma Penn, mother and daughter, hold hands while awaiting their COVID-19 vaccine in the gymnasium at Whitney M. Young Elementary School on April 2, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

One snapshot of how the delta variant is affecting a major city like Chicago (a city that has a high Black population) is troubling, to say the least. According to a recent news report in the premiere Black newspaper Chicago Crusader, “Residents in Chicago’s Black community remain at risk of contracting COVID-19 with low vaccination rates as the emerging Delta COVID-19 variant continues to spread throughout the country. After months of campaigns, neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides are in danger of being infected by the Delta COVID-19 variant, a dangerous virus that experts say is more transmissible than the coronavirus.

The report continues: “While affluent neighborhoods in the city of Chicago have largely returned to normal life, low vaccination rates continue to plague Black and minority neighborhoods. Many of the zip codes in the Black community still have the lowest vaccination rates in the city that are under 40 percent. They include Austin (60644), Englewood (60621), West Englewood (60636), South Shore (60649), Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing (60619), West Pullman and Roseland (60628), Auburn Gresham (60620) and West Garfield Park (60624).”

This snapshot of Chicago is also the same snapshot running rampant through southern cities and states like Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. According to the CDC, the dangerous variant has now reached 47 states, especially in the South, where the variant is surging amid low vaccination rates. Louisiana, for example, says that 99% of its new cases are unvaccinated people under 45. The delta variant is highly transmissible and hits harder than the original strain. Those, like me, who are fully vaccinated are not at risk for death or serious illness, but we can still get the delta if we come into contact with an infected asymptomatic person. 

A man holds a sign and dresses as a plague doctor to encourage people to be vaccinated and help prevent prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic March 25, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

While the elderly are still more at risk, what we are seeing with the delta variant surge is that it’s affecting the young and unvaccinated. So where does politics come into this and when does it trump good public health policies? That’s a hard line to draw. On the one hand, we see red states (states that voted for Trump in 2020 or that are very Republican) with largely white, rural populations like in West Virginia or Tennessee with low vaccination rates.

To his credit, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has tried everything from giving away savings bonds, to taking to TV begging his people to get vaccinated. As for Tennessee, they made national headlines this week when they fired a public health official, Michelle Fiscus, who says she was terminated for trying to get teens vaccinated in her state. This is an example of anti-vaccination forces acting completely irresponsibly. 

Ultimately, we are seeing two different Americas with respect to low vaccination rates. The white populations who do not trust the vaccine, and who refuse to take it have bought into misinformation campaigns spread by Republicans and Trump. Lest we forget Trump’s tweets in 2020 attacking Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” (he was talking about mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns). He did the same against my home state of Virginia. These tweets led to armed protests, violence, anti-mask campaigns, and once the vaccines were available, anti-vaxxer campaigns. States like Florida (led by Republicans) even have an insane ‘Don’t Fauci My Florida’ merchandise campaign.

As for Black Americans, we are being hospitalized at rates 2.9 times higher than white Americans and dying from COVID-19 at rates 1.9 times higher. With these staggering numbers, you might think that Black people would be lining up to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.

But the Black community has legitimate reasons for distrust – and it’s not a simple or sole matter of miseducation about vaccines. The distrust is much deeper and is rooted in a history of racism in medicine; using Blacks as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee experiment. Using Black enslaved women’s bodies to work on gynecological experiments. And let us not forget Henrietta Lacks. However, all of that being true, compounded with the misinformation coming from the far right, it is imperative that Black communities get vaccinated, and quickly. Our very lives, and the lives of our children, depend on it. 

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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