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29 January 2021

What’s driving vaccine hesitancy among black Britons? The answer is complicated

Ministers reaching for lessons from the United States are looking in the wrong place. 

By Stephen Bush

Kemi Badenoch has revealed she did not participate in a new video – featuring all but two of Westminster’s sitting black MPs – encouraging black Britons to get the coronavirus vaccine because she feared spreading concerns about the vaccine being “tested first” on black people. (Badenoch has participated in the trials for the Novavax vaccine.)

While the bulk of the commentary about Badenoch’s disclosure has suggested she opted to do it – a multi-part tweet thread in which she berated the HuffPo journalist Nadine White for asking the question, despite the fact White observed usual journalistic standards throughout – her answer also deserves scrutiny, particularly given it may reflect a wider lack of understanding of the issue among ministers.

Although there is a legacy of illegal medical experimentation on black Americans, this is not a major driver of vaccine hesitancy among black Britons, according to the available evidence we have. (We could always benefit from more, and one thing ministers could do is fund more of it.) Vaccine hesitancy among black Britons, in normal times, is driven by religion and concerns that the vaccine is not safe for black people because it has largely been tested on white people.  

Religious concerns – for example, the dangerous misinformation that is shared online and communally about vaccines containing pork and alcohol – are best tackled not by black faces, but by high-profile Muslims and teetotal Christians, regardless of race, receiving, and talking about receiving, the jab. However, religious concerns are less of an issue when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine, because a recurrent theme in religious objections to jabs is not disinformation about their ingredients, but concerns that vaccinations for human papillomavirus will encourage people to have sex outside of wedlock. While the coronavirus jab does indirectly make sex outside of marriage a lot safer, it is not a major factor in vaccine hesitancy this time.

[see also: How a culture of mistrust is fuelling vaccine hesitancy in the US]

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It is fear over the future effects of the vaccine and concerns that it is not safe that are the major drivers of vaccine hesitancy about Covid-19 jabs, according to the available studies. The absence of vaccine testing on black Brits is a bigger driver of vaccine hesitancy in a British context than the unwanted historical presence of it, because this feared lack of testing further fuels concerns the vaccine is not safe for black people.

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Myth-busting doesn’t tend to be an effective form of advocacy, so focusing on the fact that “black” and “white” are not meaningful ethnic or genetic categories, any more than “stripy” and “spotty” are meaningful species of cow, might be true, but may not be helpful. Sharing information about the number of black people who have both received the jab and participated in trials, such as Badenoch herself, may well be.

There is a real danger that the cultural hegemony of the United States means that its historical and cultural challenges are better understood and grasped by British ministers than the historical and cultural challenges in the United Kingdom. 

That’s not to say there aren’t any concerns about experimentation among black British people – concerns about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments don’t respect national borders – and inclusive messaging such as that delivered by the video is positive. But I would be concerned if it turned out that ministers in general believed the major vaccine hurdle they need to overcome is anxiety around experimentation. That is not what the evidence tells us. The United States and the United Kingdom are different countries with different problems, and ministers who spend too much time studying the problems of the former may make the wrong decisions at home.