As distribution of the coronavirus vaccine picks up speed around the country, medical experts are increasingly worried about vaccine skepticism among African Americans, who have endured far higher infection and mortality rates than the general population. Black Americans, they say, have a deep distrust of medical advice from the government that must be overcome to protect them.
Seeking to help one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, officials have rolled out a series of events headlined by Black professionals in a bid to convince the Black community to accept vaccination. It was no accident that the first person to get the approved vaccine in America was a Black ICU nurse.
But there’s one Black organization that’s not joining in.
The Nation of Islam, the nation’s largest and best-known Black nationalist group, is not merely skeptical about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. The Nation believes that the vaccines, seen by millions as a nearly miraculous antidote to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, are part of a plot to murder Back people.
“The death plan is in motion,” Nation leader Louis Farrakhan said in an online Dec. 12 speech to the National Afrikan/Black Leadership Summit.
“Do you believe Satan is concerned with vaccinating you?” Farrakhan asked in his speech. “After all that he has done to destroy us, you trust him! And your trust is sickening because you love your enemy and you hate yourself… How could you allow him to stick a needle into you, saying he’s helping you?”
Black skepticism about the medical establishment is rooted in America’s deeply racist history. The single most important event in this regard was a study begun by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1932, the Tuskegee Experiment, in which Black Americans with syphilis were left untreated so researchers could study supposed differences in the ways the deadly disease progressed among whites and Blacks. The study, which was finally halted in 1972, resulted in the deaths of at least 100 Black men, most or all of whom could have been cured with penicillin in the early 1940s.
Today, African Americans still fare worse in the medical system than others. They tend to be treated less effectively by doctors, and to have poorer outcomes. Many of them come from seriously polluted communities, worsening their health. And large percentages work in frontline jobs, in the service and other industries, that make them considerably more at risk for infection by the coronavirus.
But the Nation thinks there’s more to it than that.
“We cannot examine and analyze the COVID-19 vaccine without a knowledge of the climate in which it is being produced,” Ava Muhammad, Farrakhan’s “student national spokesman,” wrote in the Dec. 8 issue of the Nation’s Final Call tabloid. “In his 2013 series The Time and What Must Be Done, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan provided extensive, documented proof that the policy of the United States Government is to rid the Earth of the indigenous people. The overarching goal is to cull the population of our planet by two to three billion. This includes reducing the United States population by 150 million.”
These ideas are not new. The Nation has long described white people as “blue-eyed devils,” and it accuses the government of poisoning Black people’s food and water as part of its plans to annihilate the Black race. Nation leaders have said the government purposely created the AIDS virus to kill Black people, and one of them claims Jewish doctors are injecting Blacks with the virus. And they accuse officials of giving Black men chemicals to turn them into homosexuals.
The Nation’s ideology is bizarre in many respects, and in recent years it has become linked to another strange belief system in the Church of Scientology. The Nation preaches that the world was once run by brilliant Black “scientists,” the “Original People,” but that one of them, a rebel named Yacub, created white people in a laboratory. Whites are seen as intrinsically, biologically evil, and doomed to lose their power to resurgent “indigenous” people some time very soon. The Nation is also intensely anti-Semitic and bitterly opposed to homosexuality.
But it has influence. Although its membership is estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000, organized into mosques and study groups in some 120 American cities, it has had outsize success in convincing huge numbers of Black Americans of the false claim that Jews dominated the transatlantic slave trade. In 1995, it organized the Million Man March attended by hundreds of thousands. Even the writer Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and other novels, has said she admires Farrakhan, as did two organizers of the 2017 Women’s March.
So the Nation’s propaganda about coronavirus vaccine is important, conceivably even critical. A recent Pew Research poll found that in November just 42 percent of African Americans said they would or probably would get the vaccine, down from 54 percent last May. That compares to 63 percent of American Latinos, 61 percent of whites, and 83 percent of Asians who told pollsters in November that they would or probably would get vaccinated. Although no one is sure of the numbers, experts speculate that as much as 70 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve something like herd immunity.
Another poll, by the NAACP, found last month that just 14 percent of Blacks “mostly or completely trust” that the vaccine is safe. That may be largely because, as the poll found, only 4 percent of Blacks trusted the Trump administration.
Although the Nation has been deeply suspicious of vaccines in general for years, Farrakhan first took aim at a potential coronavirus vaccine on July 4, in a speech quickly taken down by YouTube. “They are making money right now, plotting to give seven billion five hundred million people a vaccination,” he said then. “What the hell gives you that right? Who are you to sit down with your billions and talk about who can live and who should die? That’s why your world is coming to an end quickly, because you have sentenced billions to death.”
Black people are significantly more likely to be infected with the coronavirus and also more likely to die of it. They are losing proportionately more jobs than others as a result of the pandemic. It would be a horrible irony indeed if it was an organization that purports to stand up for oppressed African Americans that turned out to be a chief contributor to their unnecessary deaths.