Black Britons and the vaccine: Government distrust, the comfort of religion and the post-truth age of social media
Outside of racism and the prospect of Carnival going ahead this year, what has united a vast majority of the black British community? And no, I am not talking about being fed up with this whole lockdown.
It's the strong distrust against taking the COVID-19 vaccines.
Whether old or young, second generation or third generation, African or Caribbean, there is a universal truth among black Britons right now: Don’t trust the vaccine. It’s even official now. Stats from the UK Household Longitudinal Study showed that 72% of black people in the UK were unlikely to take the jab.
The fact that such a high percentage of black people in the UK are so against the virus does not surprise me. Some of my friends, who are educated and mostly well-balanced black men and black women, have straight up told me they would have to be tied down and drugged off their faces for anyone to inject the vaccine into them. Most of my family aren't keen either - my Mum is outright against it (more on her later).
Many black social media influencers have basically voiced their doubts about the vaccine. Some have made humorous videos showing exaggerated side-effects of taking the vaccine, such as half of your face sliding down or slurred speech. Although it's content for entertainment, it fuels fears among the black British community that the vaccine could seriously affect your ability to do anything, from walking to having sex. This is despite the reassurances from qualified medical professionals that there will be no other ramifications apart from protection from the virus.
Now it is easy to simply dismiss black people's reluctance to take the vaccine as a another example of us being cynical for the sake of it. Even if you're from the community, to do that is to ignore the complex and intertwining reasons why black people are such adamant anti-vaxxers.
Distrust of a government who have historically not had their interests at heart
Most black people don't trust the government. This is universal. To be fair, we black people have not had the best relationships with those in power in the western world. In Britain, when the first West Indians stepped off the HMT Empire Windrush onto British soil in 1948, they weren't exactly embraced. Instead, they and their children would be subjected to two solid decades of racial abuse, discrimination and police brutality that was encouraged by the government. And if it wasn't pushed by the British government, then whatever mistreatment that befell the burgeoning black British community was largely ignored by it.
The West Indians who came to Britain and the Africans who migrated afterwards in the 80s have not forgotten. Britain's appalling treatment of its new African and Caribbean population has left a bad taste and a deep, raw distrust in white-dominated government. This anti-government stance has been passed down to the next generation of black Britons born into this country.
Worse still, we have a Conservative government in power. Given that Thatcher's Conservative government resided in parliament during the 80s, when black Britons really had an awful time, the black British population's cynicism toward the British government is even higher. This is further compounded by some of the questionable remarks the current PM has made about black people in the past, and well… you can sort of see why many black Britons aren't really buying into the government's endorsement of the vaccines. I honestly think the Labour party, which historically secures black votes, would have a marginally better chance of convincing black people to take the vaccine.
But even Labour would struggle to convince black Britons to trust the vaccine for another reason.
Big pharma have a history of abusing black bodies*
Pfizer, the American multinational pharmaceutical company, is manufacturing the main vaccine currently be rolled out across the country.
But Pfizer has a dark past of endangering black lives to test new drugs. Almost 25 years ago now, Pfizer carried out drug trials on children living in the northern city of Kano, Nigeria. Tragically, 11 children died and dozens more suffered irreversible disabilities. What's worse, the trial was carried out underhandedly and was effectively illegal.
Although Pfizer did eventually give massive payouts to the family as compensation - the damage had been done. Not only would these families never see their children again but Pfizer's reputation had been seriously damaged, perhaps permanently.
So it's not surprising then that many black Britons aren't exactly queuing up enthusiastically to take vaccine, given the history behind those who have manufactured it. Young black people, because of social media, are well informed and know about the Kano incident.
But this brings me to my next point.
Influencers and celebrities have more sway than actual experts
Among young black people today, celebrities and social media influencers have significant sway on their opinions. A friend of mine told me he wasn't taking the vaccine and when I asked him why he sent me a video of a social media comedian explaining why the vaccine is potentially dodgy. It wasn't a video from a qualified expert but a comedian whose job is to make people laugh, not to provide educational content on vaccinations.
The government's problem, and this isn't exclusive to black millennials but the younger generation at large, is that young people don't really give a toss about the objective truth anymore. Experts can be ignored. To play devil’s advocate, government experts have made some assurances in the past about when we would be out of lockdown only to backtrack on their word. So there is a credibility issue about the truth behind the words of these medical experts.
Also, social media is a whole lot of noise. Everyone has an opinion. The person with the most engaged followers has the power to change millions of views with their own uninformed opinions about the vaccine. The government has quite a task on its hand cutting through the social media jungle and engaging these social media influencers to communicate the correct information to their legions of followers. But there may be some reluctance among the black influencers to peddle the government's message. We have seen black stars like Ashley Walters use his Instagram channel to encourage his fans to take the vaccine. But this is few and far between.
The strong hold of religion
Religion is like gravity for many black Britons, especially the baby boomer generation. My mother is a fervent Christian, and she has told me that she would outright refuse to take the vaccine when it is offered to her. In her eyes, the vaccine has not been sanctioned by God.
Often, in African and Caribbean households, science takes a backseat to religion. It will be challenging to convince a steadfast Christian like my mother that she should take the vaccine. This is where the government will need to work closely with community and church leaders to educate people with strong religious beliefs about the vaccine's benefits. But even that might not be enough. Religious black people are notoriously stubborn – I speak from first-hand experience.
Widespread fake news and misinformation
Fake news has probably been the most defining aspects of western society in the last five years. The proliferation of messaging apps, like WhatsApp, has only exacerbated this. Not a day goes by when my mother hasn't sent me some ridiculous 'news report' on WhatsApp. I once got a video from someone on WhatsApp suggesting Barack Obama was a lizard in disguise.
The older black generation, who did not grow up with social media or even this level of complex technology, is easily tricked by fake news. Technology has also enabled fake news to look legit, and only the discerning eyes of someone well-versed in the norms of social news can spot when a news report is just a load of fabricated nonsense.
Initially, there had been a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus. Now we are seeing this repeated with the vaccine. I remember, when this whole pandemic began, my black friends were sending me videos about how the pandemic was part of some clandestine distraction so the government could install 5G. Remember when we had people destroying 5G towers? It's a perfect example of what happens when social media and fake news come together to form a dangerously convincing narrative that can galvanise a lot of people to do the wrong thing.
Give it time
Giving all the twists and turns of this pandemic - the broken promises and the backtracking - black people simply aren't in the right frame of mind to trust this government's endorsement of the vaccine.
However, give it a year or two, and if there have been no cases of any significant side effects from taking the vaccine, then black people will more likely be open to taking the vaccine. But right now, the black British community stand mostly united against it.
And that's on God.
*This section was added after the original article was published