Maria Mendoza Blanco/Sun Graphics Editor

Unequal vaccine distribution challenges herd immunity in the U.S. and across the world.

March 25, 2021

Structural Violence Remains Hurdle in Race Toward Herd Immunity

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Vaccine hesitancy, as well as racial and socioeconomic inequalities, significantly challenge vaccine distribution and herd immunity development across the country and globe.

Multiple vaccine trackers compiled by The New York Times, Bloomberg and the Kaiser Family Foundation confirm that in New York State, where 8 million vaccine doses have been administered, 22 percent of white residents are vaccinated, while 10 percent of Hispanic residents and 11 percent of Black residents are vaccinated.  

In New York City, 48 percent of white people have been vaccinated and only 11 percent of Black people are vaccinated, while Hispanic and Asian people equally constitute the remaining 30 percent of vaccinated individuals. 

According to Dr. Monika Safford, internal medicine, the fewer number of people vaccinated in Black and Brown communities presents an alarming pattern, as those communities are at a disproportionately higher risk of contracting COVID-19 — a fact that reflects decades of structural violence. 

However, even with initiatives like the Armory Track and Field Center site for vaccination in Washington Heights, New York, meant to support neighborhoods hit hard by the virus, officials found that the people they served were primarily white. 

Language barriers were among the reasons that people from within the Washington Heights community were not able to get vaccinated. The long-term consequence of vaccination delays are reflected in death tolls. As of March 24, The New York Times reported 229 new COVID-19 deaths in New York City. The data demonstrates a correlation between outbreaks in low-income communities and cramped housing.  

“We are reaping what we sowed. This is structural racism,” Safford said. “That’s why we see so many more deaths [in Black communities].”  

According to Kaiser Family Foundation data released Feb. 3, while Black people make up 16 percent of New Yorkers, they constitute a 23 percent of COVID-19 related deaths, reflecting a disproportionate burden of disease.

A significant factor influencing vaccine uptake and compounding death tolls in communities of color, in addition to unequal access, is vaccine hesitancy. 

Many Black and Brown communities are hesitant to get the vaccine due to misinformation and past racism in clinical trial misconduct

“One thing I think is important to note is that ‘hesitancy’ does not necessarily mean not willing to receive the vaccine,” said Prof. Neil Lewis Jr., communication. “In fact, one big thing that it seems to mean, particularly among Black and Hispanic adults, is they want to ‘wait and see.’”

However, as death tolls continue to climb, this hesitancy and fear of the vaccine has broader implications for the future of herd immunity and the pandemic. Scientists assure the public that Operation Warp Speed did not compromise on quality or ethics of research in rapidly delivering the vaccine.  

Public health initiatives including the American Psychological Association’s Equity Flattens the Curve campaign represents a national approach to addressing public mistrust, following an engagement model that considers community stakeholders and leaders.

“Unfortunately, there are not enough Black and Brown doctors in this country, so there should be resources devoted to this,” Safford said. “They want someone they would respect and trust in their community.” 

These complex inequalities in resources are also actors on the global stage, as Western countries are buying up the doses of vaccines at rates that other countries can’t afford. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, 70 low-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one in every 10 individuals.

According to Bloomberg, at the current rate of 12.2 million vaccines a day, it would take years to reach herd immunity globally, but will only take five months in the U.S., where vaccines are administered at a rate of 2.5 million per day.