COVID-19 Vaccination Can Become the New Health Disparity for Communities of Color

Communicating the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine to communities of color and why people of color should get vaccinated must be done in culturally-relevant manner.

The fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color has been widely reported.  And, as the virus continues to spread, so too has its disproportionate impact due to many factors including systemic health disparities and social determinants of health that have long plagued people of color.

Now, studies show these same disproportionately impacted communities are the most distrusting of the COVID-19 vaccine.

A recent study conducted by the NAACP and UnidosUS found only 14 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Latino Americans trust a vaccine will be safe. Eighteen percent and 40 percent, respectively, trust the vaccine will be effective, according to the survey.  

This is not at all a surprise for those of us who know and understand the racial injustices surrounding vaccines that have been inflicted on people of color, in particular the Black community, throughout our nation’s history.  Many know of the Tuskegee Experiments, but they are hardly the only case of unethical and racist experiments on people of color.

So, what can be done?

Communicating the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and why people of color should get vaccinated needs to take on classic elements of strategic crisis communication, which begins with empathy. Both because of the historical reasons, as well as because these communities have experienced a disproportionate amount of trauma from the Coronavirus and from its ramifications including economic challenges.

This means governmental and health organization must ensure the people who are entrusted to develop the messages and the credible ways to communicate them to communities of color not only understand the historical contexts that shape their concerns and fuel their distrust, but that they are in an empathetic and credible position to do so.

This is not a case where the same communication and messaging can be done to all audiences or simply translated to other languages. Rather, messages must be culturally relevant, tailored and authentic to resonate with communities of color.  In multicultural marketing, we call this “Transcreation.”  

Further, organizations and governments should also enlist the help of influential surrogates who have the trust of their communities to help to deliver the tailored messages and get vaccinated themselves, such as Hartford HealthCare’s Senior System Director for Infection Prevention, Dr. Keith Grant, who has been vocal about the safety of the vaccine. The same NAACP and UnidosUS study showed that people of color would trust a messenger of their own racial/ethnic group twice as much as a White leader. 

The study showed the high trust among Blacks and Hispanics in their health care provider at giving clear information for making a decision, indicating doctors and other clinical staff – particular from racial/ethnic heritage – would also be helpful in communicating culturally relevant messages.

Transparency is also an important consideration for building trust, especially from governmental institutions. This is a time where it won’t be possible to over communicate to communities of color and to make extra efforts to leverage or build relationships with the institutions they trust.

With generations of distrust in vaccines and health disparities, the many recent racial injustices still fresh on people’s minds, as well as the Coronavirus, which has kept us all in a prolonged pandemic, there is no time to waste when it comes to ensuring communication about the vaccine is done in a culturally relevant manner.