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Trust the science

Leading by example: Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, at the initial rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Bermuda (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“There’s a plague that is killing Black people, at a rate that should make everyone outraged! If Covid were killing White people at the rate it is killing Black people, you better believe that everyone would be wearing masks. Because it would be the damn law”— Maggie Pierce (Grey’s Anatomy)

The mere mention of the term “herd immunity” conjures for some visions of cattle rustling, the closest human parallel of which recalls the darkest of days — a 400-year curse on mankind when millions of free men, women and children were forcibly taken from their homelands in Africa to endure a life of slavery.

The subsequent and often systemic ill-treatment of Blacks over several generations and the delinquent approach to reparations in modern times by those responsible for that heinous period in history have resulted in an African diaspora that has trust issues.

In particular, and topically, where it pertains to “White” science.

It may very well be an overused phrase, but Bermuda really does catch a cold when America sneezes.

The signs were there late last year when Black Americans responded with hesitancy to polls about being receptive to a Covid-19 vaccine.

Black participants cited systemic racism, noting the infamous, government-backed Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

For those who need reminding, the US Public Health Service Study at Tuskegee, Alabama, began in 1932 with the goal of tracking the damage the disease does to the human body. Without informed consent, the study enrolled 600 Black men, including 399 who had syphilis, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The participants were tricked into believing they were receiving free medical care, but were instead just observed for a study of untreated syphilis.

The men were told they were being treated for “bad blood”, and did not receive any treatment for their illness — not even after penicillin was found to cure syphilis in the mid-1940s. Dozens died as a result. The study did not end until it was exposed to the media in 1972 and has gone down as one of America’s most egregious examples of medical racism.

There is more ...

Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 of cervical cancer, reflects the profiteering of Black bodies in the name of the advancement of science. Lacks entered Johns Hopkins Hospital seeking medical attention, and not receiving the same standard of care as White Americans. During an examination, her White doctor sampled her cells without her consent. For years, her own family had no knowledge that Lack’s cells were still alive in scientists’ laboratories, until they eventually discovered that scientists had used those original samples to fuel a cell line called “HeLa cells” which has generated billions of dollars in pharmaceutical research and development.

Veronica Robinson, Lack’s great-granddaughter, told Time magazine: “My great-grandmother and my family is one of the most well-known examples of what happens to African-Americans in a medical industry, in reference to how we feel about our mistrust issues. Because they launched a multimillion-dollar industry, which took 20 years for my family to even learn of, we have never been compensated for it.”

It was inevitable with these back stories and others being retold in the American media, leading to widespread Black resistance, that there would be a ripple effect in Bermuda — the disappointing result being that in a majority-Black country where 12 people have died already from illnesses related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the Sars-COV-2 virus, and where there has been no ill-treatment comparative to America’s aforementioned past, only 14 per cent of the nearly 8,000 people who have registered their interest to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are Black.

Which brings us back to this issue of “herd immunity”.

The simplest explanation is that herd immunity occurs when the unvaccinated population is too small to maintain the pathogen.

It was recognised as a naturally occurring phenomenon in the 1930s when it was observed that after a significant number of children had become immune to measles, the number of new infections temporarily decreased, including among the unvaccinated. Mass vaccination to induce herd immunity has since become common and proved successful in preventing the spread of many infectious diseases, including the eradication of smallpox in 1977.

Herd immunity can be achieved through vaccination of between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the population. As Blacks make up only 13 per cent of the population in America, it is statistically conceivable that the desired result can be achieved without their total involvement.

That is not the case here in Bermuda. Blacks account for 60 per cent of our 65,000 population, and 14 per cent registering for the vaccine simply will not cut it.

The faces of the government response in the fight against Covid-19 are all Black — the Premier, the Minister of Health, the Science Adviser to the Government — and they have led from the front in taking their first of two doses.

“Trust the science” is what David Burt has been known to repeat, and he has been quick to point to Carika Weldon when questioned if he doubted the efficacy of the vaccine, reiterating his faith in the young but highly qualified biochemist.

Although our cases are in decline on recent evidence, those who are reticent should be reminded that mass vaccination is greatly for the benefit of those most vulnerable in our society — our senior citizens and those with underlying health issues — and the minority who would be most prone to a severe allergic reaction.

It is they whom we seek to protect as we aim to rid ourselves of a scourge that ruined 2020 and is attempting to similarly stain 2021 with its new variants.

Yes, the vaccine has been produced sensationally quickly — largely because of unprecedented financial investment and human response to testing — and has still to receive full approval. But its emergency use has been authorised by the US Food and Drug Administration, and it comes with a 95 per cent success rate.

More than 63 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had been administered worldwide by yesterday, and one of the countries at the forefront has been Israel.

In just a month, Israel has injected 38 per cent of its population — 3.44 million — with at least one dose of the vaccine, a higher proportion than any other country has managed. Preliminary results for Israelis over 60 years old suggest that the first dose prevents not just symptoms but also infection, meaning that the vaccine limits the spread of the virus. The effect kicked in 14 days after vaccination, when the rate of positive tests in the vaccinated group fell by one third. Last week, Israel’s new Covid-19 cases fell for the first time in two months.

So the vaccine is working.

Trust in the science, Bermuda.

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Published January 25, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated January 25, 2021 at 8:24 am)

Trust the science

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