High-ranking Catholics aren't the only members of the clergy sounding the alarm over COVID-19.
A dozen black pastors interviewed by Reuters say they won't push new vaccines for the virus, citing concerns over its rapid development and lack of evidence for or against potential long-term effects.
"We're concerned about it being tested on persons of color," said A.R. Bernard, the bead of a Brooklyn megachurch who declined a major healthcare organization's invitation to sit on a committee aimed at boosting vaccine acceptance within the black community in New York City. Bernard was hospitalized with the virus in March, and says he wants to "wait and see" until more information emerges on the vaccine's side effects.
Bernard, who leads the Christian Cultural Center, the largest church in the city, said he turned down the offer because he worried some members of his congregation could view his participation as “joining forces with the system” to use African Americans “as guinea pigs” for vaccines that have been developed in record time. -Reuters
Reuters suggests that the hesitation by black pastors towards vaccination 'is striking' because they have been playing a key role in educating their communities about the risks of the virus for African Americans, who are 2.8 times more likely to die from the disease than white Americans, according to the CDC.
Crestfallen health officials had hopes that black faith leaders and other African American role models would lead the charge in quashing skepticism among the black community, with just 49% of blacks saying they're interested in taking it vs. 63% of white Americans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month. Most of those who won't take it are concerned over the record-breaking speed with which it was developed, while black pastors in particular cite deep-seated mistrust in the medical establishment among blacks.
"What we’re dealing with right now is the byproduct of ... generations of distrust, suspicion and fear with regard to how medical systems work," said Edwin Sanders, head of Metropolitan International Church in Nashville, Tennessee, who has been involved with public health education since HIV/AIDS struck in the 1980s (via Reuters).
The distrust is rooted in decades of unequal healthcare access and treatment, under-representation in clinical trials and a record of being used as unwitting test subjects, such as in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that continued through 1972 and withheld syphilis treatment from infected Black men without their knowledge.
Pastors said this history has fed fears that the COVID-19 vaccine may not work in Black Americans, or that they may be given a different shot than the rest of society. -Reuters
"I can’t in good faith tell my people to accept this wholesale, but I also am not trying to support any type of baseless conspiracy theories. It’s a tightrope that I have to walk here," said Earle Fisher, pastor of the Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Most of the 12 pastors interviewed agreed that the vaccine was necessary to end the crisis, but just one was willing to endorse it at this time - while most of them said they want more data before recommending it to their parishioners.
"As a pastor and as a healthcare worker, I can see why people should take it, because of the devastation that I’ve seen. But I also understand why the African American community does not trust it because of how we’ve been treated in the past," said Reginald Belton of First Baptist Church of Brownsville in Brooklyn, "who also performs pastoral care at a hospital."
Belton says he'll take the vaccine, but similarly wants to provide his followers with more information before he will endorse it.
Another pastor, Elijah Hankerson III of the Life Center International Church of God in Christ in St. Louis, Missouri, said that Pfizer and Moderna's 90%+ efficacy isn't enough for him to promote a vaccine - however if St. Louis officials vouch for it, and his legal team and church health unit sign off, he said he would promote it on his webcasts and social media audience of approximately 70,000.
"Data is one thing," said Hankerson, whose uncle and two colleagues died due to complications from the virus. "If there are people that we trust that can vouch and say, ‘Hey, this is for the benefit of the people, get this out,’ then we wouldn’t mind doing it."