Dr. Spencer Crew
Spencer R. Crew is currently the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University and Emeritus Director of the National Museum of African American History and the National Museum of American History. Previous to Mason he served as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for six years and worked at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution for twenty years. Nine of those years, he served as the director. He most recently served as the interim Director at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. At each of those institutions, he sought to make history accessible to the public through innovative and inclusive exhibitions and public programs. Crew has published extensively in the areas of African American and Public History as well as curated numerous exhibitions the most recent one at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dr. Spencer Crew
Dr. Spencer Crew
One person’s views on the COVID-19 vaccination
I am a firm believer in the necessity of receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. The spread of the coronavirus throughout the United States during the past year has taken a terrible toll on the nation, and communities of color have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. More than 500,000 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19 by March, 2021. Of that number, the percentage of persons of color whose lives were lost is well out of proportion to their representation in the general population. An out-of-proportion percentage of persons of color who required hospitalization also exceeds their representation. Pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, limited access to health care and overrepresentation in service positions make them more vulnerable to exposure, catching the virus and having a difficult time recovering from the disease. Simply put if you are a person of color your chances of succumbing to COVID, if you catch it, are higher than that of other individuals.
A history of medical mistreatment and memories of human experimentation using people of color, particularly during the early development of vaccines and medications understandingly are impacting the willingness of some people to be vaccinated. The Tuskegee “Bad Blood” syphilis experiment on black men which began in 1932 and lasted over four decades was inexcusable and cruel. Also, unforgiveable were the antebellum experimentation on enslaved black women by Dr. James Marion Sims and the scientific exploitation of the genes of Henrietta Lacks after her death in 1951. These instances and others certainly call for caution as new forms of medicine emerge.
Yet, it is also true that the idea of the use of inoculations for smallpox was introduced to New England in the 1700s when an enslaved West African man, Onesimus, explained the process used in his native land to Puritan leader Cotton Mather. Mather subsequently became an avid proponent of its utilization. There was debate then about its use, as well, as some argued it was a new and not well-tested procedure. But what they learned was that inoculated individuals were less likely to die from the disease than those who were not inoculated. Consequently, the risks of negative results from receiving inoculation were lower than what might happen if one contracted smallpox. In the end those who accepted the procedure benefited.
This risk-reward analysis is an important factor to consider in the case of the COVID vaccine as well. A person’s reaction to coronavirus infection varies from mild symptoms to death. It is hard to predict how each of us might react if we got COVID. What we do know is that if you are a person of color the risks of a more severe reaction are higher. I unfortunately know people stricken by COVID who did not survive it. Many of them people of color who died before there was access to the vaccine. I know that I, and I would guess their loved ones, wish that the option to get a vaccine was available to them. The heartbreak and pain of losing a loved one is not an experience any of us wishes to suffer.
These are the factors I considered when contemplating whether to get vaccinated. There is always the possibility that I will not get infected at all by the virus, or if I am will have a non-fatal reaction. This is the best-case scenario. I could also catch it, recover, but have lingering effects, which some people suffer for days, weeks, and longer. The worst case is that I contract COVID and die from it. Neither of the latter two possibilities are acceptable to me. On the other hand, to date, the reactions to the shot have not been severe. The most common reaction seems to be arm soreness or an elevation in temperature for a day or so. Most information now available supports the safeness of the vaccines and more importantly the impact it will have on the process of moving us toward a more normal existence.
I do not want to contract COVID nor do I want to unintentionally give it to someone else. The best way I know to guard against these outcomes is to take advantage of the vaccine. This is not a decision I can make for anyone else. All I can do is share my thinking on the matter with the hope that more people will decide to receive the vaccine. Especially for communities of color, it is a critical decision that can have dire consequences in light of the statistics illustrating the vulnerability that we potentially face when not inoculated. In my view, getting vaccinated has fewer risks than refusing to receive the vaccine and contracting COVID with all the possible dire consequences connected to that choice.