Understanding COVID vaccine skepticism: It’s not all anti-science

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Credit: Tim Lahan/NBC News

Even though vaccines have virtually eliminated the risk of many preventable diseases, there has been an increase in refusal and hesitancy over the past two decades. Typically vaccine refusal is most prevalent in wealthy, white areas, but polls that seek to understand the pending coronavirus vaccine indicate high levels of hesitancy and refusal among marginalized communities, too. In fact, these groups appear to be the most skeptical, with only a quarter of Black respondents and 37 percent of Hispanic respondents in the AP-NORC poll saying they would commit to getting the vaccine whenever it is available.

Considering that Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities are at the highest risk of infection and are overrepresented in COVID-19 deaths, this result may look like a curious discrepancy. But it is not hard to understand these groups’ caution and, in some cases, their downright refusal to engage with public health recommendations when one considers the historical racism embedded in the fabric of the medical systems and the harm suffered at the hands of biased science.

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The people and institutions responsible for designing the communication around the coronavirus vaccine have to consider this broad backdrop if we want to get COVID-19 under control. Validating the ways in which the American people, and marginalized groups in particular, have sometimes been misled, mistreated and misunderstood at the hands of “science” is the first step in regaining their trust.

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