As is his custom on the "main story" featured on "Last Week Tonight," John Oliver neither talks down to, nor above, his audience. On Sunday night, he remarked (beginning at 4:34 of the video below)
....let's talk about the Covid vaccines- why people are hesitant, what their worries are, and how they might be reassured. Let's start with the facts. You can't categorize any one group as uniformly vaccin-hesitant. No demographic group is immune. Every group wiell have some who are excited and some who are anxious. And different groups will be anxious for different reasons.
Oliver thus differentiates himself from many journalists in broadcast media who broadly cast as cartoonishly ignorant white peope who are skeptical of the vaccine. However, he added "for instance, early on you heard about some hesitancy among black Americans, which can be a real thing. Even this pediatrician had reservations."
Interviewer: When the vaccine was first made available to both of you, did you both jump at the chance to get it?
Dr. Clarissa Dudley of Children's National Hospital: No, no, not me, anyway. I am black first in this country and that has with it a lot of baggage to tell you the truth, and so from my public health degree, the culminating experience that I did was related to the relationship between black people and physicians and that relationship has been a cantankerous one. And so those are the kinds of things that are deeply embedded and challenging to overcome even with someone who is a scientist.
(Tape ends and Oliver returns.)
Honestly, I do understand that. We've talked before on this show about the fraught relationship black Americans have with health care based on Cohen's bad experiences and the history of such incidents such as the Tuskegee experiment, where doctors lied to black men, allowing them to suffer from untreated syphillis over decades- or as most U.S. history students would describe it, "something I have not heard of."
Though it does seem important to mention that that doctor did end up getting the vaccine and in general black vaccine hesitancy has dropped fast.
It seems also important to note that the impact of the Tuskegee experiment, which Oliver suggests played a role in Dr. Dudley's reticence, was overcome in the minds of most black Americans. That would be because, unlike "scientist" Dudley, most blacks are not foolish, as The Washington Post's David Montgomery found when he
contacted the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, an organization of Tuskegee descendants founded in 2014 to keep alive the men’s stories and promote education. Lillie Tyson Head serves as president. She told me she understands and respects the feelings of people who see the Tuskegee study as a reason to be wary of the coronavirus vaccines. She thinks the descendants have a role to play in assuaging some of those fears — serving as“an encouragement or an inspiration for people to get the vaccine, especially people of color.”
The family trees of descendants no doubt contain some vaccine skeptics. But Head says the foundation’s most active members have been, or soon will be, vaccinated.
Although that's encouraging, it's worrisome if a healthy- more likely, unhealthy- swath of black America was hesitant about the vaccine because of a study which ended a half century ago. It's hard to believe that so many African-Americans would have been afraid of the vaccine without members of the media, and foolish people like Dr. Dudley, encouraging them to be scared.
It strains credulity to believe that Dr. Dudley herself initially avoided getting the vaccine because of the historically cantakerous (contentious?) between blacks and their doctors. Dudley herself may not trust her own doctor, to which the rational response should have been to find a new physician. She would know how to do that- she's a doctor. As "a scientist," she presumably would be rational.
More likely, Dudley for whatever reason avoided getting the vaccine once she was able to do so but used that cantakerous relationship as an excuse. After all, she did eventually get vaccinated, without any indication that she did so only after finding a doctor she could trust. And the history of black Americans with the medical profession has not disappeared.
It's improbable that many blacks actually believed that a vaccine which white (Latino, Asian-American, and others) people were being implored to get was a tactic to kill off African-Americans. If it were, a whole lot of people who aren't black would have been eliminated. That would have been a foolish strategy. To believe there was such a plot would have been, well, foolish.
The emphasis in the first few months upon hesitancy of blacks to be vaccinated probably was exaggerated for political motive. It was a fairly effective way to inform viewers of the Tuskegee experiment and to remind them of the racial divide in the American health care system. Some people avoided getting their shot(s) because of it and probably a few even died. But for individuals such as Dr. Clarissa Dudley, that may have been a small price to pay to make a point.