When I was 20 years old, I spent two weeks in isolation in Bronx Lebanon Hospital with a life-threatening case of hepatitis. I vividly and poignantly recall my tearful mother at my bedside reading to me the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus speaks to his apostle Philip. Twenty years later a hepatitis vaccine was developed.
I pray that science will rapidly develop a vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which is disproportionately affecting and killing African Americans in our country. And if it is proven safe, I hope people will take it.
A few weeks ago, I contacted some friends in the scientific community to ask where I could apply to be involved in the testing of the vaccine. My friends politely told me that given my age and health situation I would not be a desirable candidate for experimentation.
The reluctance of some African Americans to embrace vaccines is understandable given what some of our ancestors endured in the name of scientific advancement. But we should be mindful that the medical and ethical obscenity of the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was that it was conducted without informed consent. The subjects were hoodwinked into thinking they were receiving free medical care from the federal government and those with the disease received no treatment.
In 1932 the men were told that the study of “bad blood” would last six months but it was conducted for 40 years. The heinous inhumanity of the experiment was most tragically demonstrated by the fact that even when penicillin was proven to be a cure for syphilis, the men received no medicine. In 1994 the victims of that experiment and their immediate families received monetary reparations from the federal government and a pledge for lifelong medical treatment. In 1997, President Bill Clinton on behalf of the federal government, formally apologized to the victims of the experiment and their families.
Let us be clear that the Tuskegee experiment was done with the conscious collaboration of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black college. Thus, this was another disgraceful example of some Black people not being the keepers of their brothers and sisters. But that American story starts with some African slave traders booking travel on the Middle Passage for their own people to the current Black-on-Black carnage we witness today in the bloodstained streets of our cities.
Although I believe in some holistic health regimens, I also have some trust in western medicine. Of course, rigorous skepticism is part of the scientific method and it should always be employed. However, it is exceedingly dangerous when skepticism in our community becomes so intransigent and intellectually slipshod that some of our leaders and activists encourage people not to do the things that can save their lives and that of their neighbors. This type of ill-informed advocacy is a contributing factor to why most African Americans do not donate blood or are organ donors. Our beloved Marion Barry’s life was extended because an African American woman donated her kidney. The success of organ transplantation is due to years of surgical experimentation and pharmacological advancements.
In the 1980’s when I was on the staff of the Howard University College of Medicine Center for Sickle Cell Disease I contributed some blood to the National Institutes of Health. My late mother had sickle cell disease, I have the trait and was glad that I could contribute to finding new treatments and hopefully a cure for an illness that affects a substantial number of African Americans. I am an organ donor and 30 years ago I willed my body to the Howard University College of Medicine for research purposes. However, in case my remains are rejected by Howard University, my will lists the Mortuary Science Program of the University of the District of Columbia as my second option. I want to help my people in death as much as I have tried to help the community in life. (To be honest, my body will probably receive more attention in death that it ever did in life.)
In the 1980’s with the advent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic it was clear that our nation had to marshal its resources to save lives. In the beginning, an AIDS diagnosis was an immediate death sentence, but due to scientific experimentation and innovative drugs people with that disease are able to live longer and meaningfully. Some people with the disease came forth and volunteered for clinical trials to develop new drugs. Of course, there were conspiracy theorists who said that AIDS was manufactured in a laboratory and urged people not to take the new drugs. I am grateful that those negative demagogues did not prevail and I am still enjoying the friendship of some of those who have been living with AIDS for over 30 years because they take their medicine.
As soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and proven safe, please sign me up. I want to be among the first in line because I firmly believe that masks as a fashion accessory for the general public should only be for Halloween and masquerade galas.
Philip Pannell is the Director of Community Affairs of ADA, Inc. and the Executive Director of the non-profit Anacostia Coordinating Council. He is a longtime community activist in the District of Columbia in general and east of the Anacostia River in particular. He has received over 100 awards during his nearly four decades of work in DC. In 2011 he received the U.S. President’s Call to Service Award and in 2012 received the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations’ award for the Outstanding President of a Member Association and the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s Community Service Award. He has served as the president of the Congress Heights Community Association and the Anacostia/Bellevue/Congress Heights AARP Chapter #4870.