London, United Kingdom – When 29-year-old Shabrez Ali from Bradford was a child, his mother was cautious about vaccines.
“For the longest time, my mum didn’t want me to take jabs during primary and secondary school,” Ali, who has South Asian origins, told Al Jazeera by phone.
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He was not sure why, but guessed, “it may have been due to some potential conspiracies she might have heard in the past”.
Since the UK went into its first coronavirus lockdown in March, Ali, who suffers from an autoimmune condition, has barely left the house.
He had received a letter from the government urging him to “shield” because the immunosuppressant drugs he takes made him vulnerable.
Now the UK has begun a mass inoculation programme, Ali hopes he will be able to leave his bedroom more often.
But he is worried.
“I’m already playing Russian roulette with the medication I’m currently taking,” he said. “The way I see it, a vaccine is just something else [to worry about] on top of that.”
Community care worker Mycall Isrell, who is from a Caribbean background, said he would consider getting the vaccine because it was a question of “morals and ethics”, to protect those he works with.
However, he has fears because of unethical medical experiments on Black communities in the past.
“Any fear of vaccines, medicines and cures, it’s almost like it’s in the Black DNA,” he said.
For instance, in 1932, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study recruited African American men in exchange for free healthcare, but some participants died as part of the observational study and their family members became infected.
In the mid-19th century in the United States, James Marion Sims, who is remembered as the “father of modern gynaecology”, used slaves as medical guinea pigs, experimenting surgeries on them without anaesthetic.
“Real or imagined, the historical facts are there and they’re still happening,” said Isrell. “They’re being chipped down and broken away like the Berlin Wall. But some of those structures are still in place.”
Havovie Bomanji, a 52-year-old from the northern city of Bradford who has Pakistani origins, has had coronavirus.
But despite having no spleen and being classed as extremely vulnerable, she will not be lining up for the vaccine.
“I’m heartbroken at livelihoods lost, but the decision not to have the vaccine comes from years of major distrust about big pharma’s motives,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I am very into boosting the body’s immune system naturally and have done this for me and my family.
“There should be complete transparency over the ingredient list of the vaccines for starters. It amazes me how people are so eager and willing to be injected with Lord knows what, yet claim to be clean eaters or on the healthy bandwagon.”
A poll by Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London found little more than a third of ethnic minority Londoners – 39 per cent – said they were likely to take the vaccine compared with 70 percent of white people in the capital city.
“Vaccine hesitancy is not to be dismissed and can be on account of a range of factors – rumour, speed of vaccine development, perception of risk, discrimination – but most important is trust,” Professor Sophie Harman, who specialises in the politics of global health at Queen Mary University, told Al Jazeera. “[It] risks a double tragedy: racial inequality in deaths from COVID-19 and potential racial inequality in vaccine uptake.”
Until August, more than a third of critically ill COVID-19 patients were from ethnic minority backgrounds. And Black African men are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white men.
As numerous Asian and Black families mourn the loss of loved ones, there is some hesitancy among those who blame the government for failing to properly investigate why their communities were worse affected.
While many experts have said discrimination has played a role, a scientist who advised the government said in October that “structural racism is not a reasonable explanation” for the increased death rate.
Of almost 362,000 people who volunteered in the NHS COVID-19 vaccine registry, only 4.3 percent were Asian, and 0.5 were Black.
MPs Kemi Badenoch and Naz Shah, who are Black and Asian respectively, took part in coronavirus vaccine trials to encourage more ethnic minority volunteers, who currently are underrepresented.
When you get asked, are MP's going to be the first to trial the vaccine?
— Naz Shah MP (@NazShahBfd) December 2, 2020
Winston Morgan, a reader in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at University of East London, said vaccine hesitancy is fuelled by “structural racism, both current and historical”.
“There is a clear lack of trust based on the lived experiences of many in these communities, so reassurances about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine are not being heard, or they don’t believe the safety and efficacy data applies to them,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some minority communities are cautious because they view troubling statistics as evidence of health inequalities.
Black women, for instance, are five times more likely to die in childbirth compared to white women.
Meanwhile, misinformation is swirling around online about 5G mobile networks fuelling the virus, claims of vaccine trial volunteers dying after taking the jabs, and conspiracy theories that people will be microchipped as they accept shots.
According to the London-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), social media companies allow the so-called “anti-vaxxer” movement to spread lies on their platforms.
Since last year, the CCDH says, anti-vaxxers on social media have increased their followings by about eight million people.
But Sanjoy Bhattacharya, professor in the history of medicine at the University of York, said national and international establishments were responsible for boosting trust among ethnic minority communities.
He advised governments should adapt to “economic and cultural complexities”, adding that in terms of the polio and smallpox vaccines, these kinds of failures were as “powerful as any disinformation spread by anti-vaccination lobbies”.
“Resistance was not just linked to ‘misinformation’,” he explained. “It was also the lack of official clarity about evidence of vaccinal efficacy and safety, a general disinterest amongst programme leads about wider socio-economic difficulties impacting communities, and an inability to create respectful and trustworthy links with disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups.”
As the UK prepares to roll out the vaccine further, after prioritising the elderly and healthcare workers, some activists have said the government should ensure information campaigns about the vaccine reach those on the margins of society.
Any lack of trust is rooted in lived experiences as opposed to conspiracy theories, said Morgan, leading to a “circular situation” in which few ethnic minorities signed up for vaccine trials.
“The only way to regain trust is for the government to accept structural racism is playing a significant role in poorer medical outcomes,” he said, “which they are unwilling to do”.