The COVID Vaccine. It arrived in Ghana this week.
It’s arrival is equally welcome and beset by global controversy. Ghana is the first nation in Africa to get the UN-backed COVAX distribution of the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine. First to take it was our President, First Lady, Vice President and 2nd lady – all on camera. The aim was to communicate confidence, and demonstrate leadership. In his now COVID almost weekly Sunday address, the President declared by the end of 2021, 20 million Ghanaians should be vaccinated.
Here’s the challenge. Ghana’s public education campaign must grapple with a global narrative – particularly from the UK, Europe and America where the vaccine rollout is ongoing. It is one of mistrust, suspicion, conspiracy theories, but underpinning that is a deeper untreated trauma about race, health, inequity, politics, abuse, Africa and systems of abusive power led by white men.
That narrative reveals a lot about global Black people’s relationship to trauma, mistrust of white institutions, suspicions about the vaccine’s content and so, as a global Black chick, I am exploring the narratives about the vaccine, and why this moment is so crucial for our emotional health as much as it is for our physical health.
My mother got her first vaccine shot yesterday. She is 85. I got my first vaccine shot yesterday too. As a writer of a column published in an online and print newspaper, I joined Ghana’s press corps at Accra’s International Press Centre to get my vaccine. The procedure is simple enough. Arrive, write your name on a list, join the line. When you get to the front, show ID, an official takes your details. Then, a nurse administers the first of what will be two shots, you go outside and wait for your vaccine card to be completed. Then you’re done. The procedure may be simple and straight-forward, the process of administering the procedure was not. Arriving in the morning, everybody was wearing a mask, but there was little clarity and organization in the main room. There was no social distancing leading many of us to go outside and stay there. I would end up arriving in the morning, surveying the disorder, leaving and taking care of business, holding meetings, working on another project before going back later in the afternoon. The Ghana Health Ministry is in charge of this dissemination. Simply put, it needs to seriously revise and up its game. They had only one nurse administering the vaccine shot. She was wonderful, but clearly exhausted – as of course anyone would be – because this was not work for one person. Equally, laborious was getting your vaccine card after you get the vaccine shot. The Ghana Health Ministry has a mammoth task on its hands. It is unlikely to complete it using the model that I witnessed and participated in yesterday. Of course, there is value in the media getting it done; being able to go on mic, on screen, on keyboard and speak publicly about the procedure. I did not have any hesitation in getting the vaccine. I am clear that the mistrust that permeates Ghana requires a public education strategy that has not yet been adopted. While waiting in the morning for my vaccine, I watched different stories featuring the voices of everyday Ghanaians sharing their vaccine views. While this isn’t a representative sample – it did reveal two things – Ghanaians want an African made vaccine, the global narratives around race, racism and abuse of power together with a toxic political climate fed their mistrust, elevated suspicion. Both lay on deeper fault lines of Africa’s relationship to Europe on issues of using African bodies as lab rats for medicine to serve European ones. The suspicion around vaccine is a deeper reckoning on a legacy of untreated trauma between Africa, the US and Europe. It is a reminder that untreated historical trauma has contemporary manifestations. Lockdown made global folks local, creating a more intimate relationship to these traumas.
I am leading a project – The Black Frontline – gathering stories of global Black healthcare workers during the pandemic across the UK. I was also born in London before coming home to Ghana for school, and then moving between both nations. Across the UK, COVID has disproportionately impacted Black people. That vulnerability elevates the importance of the vaccine. From the UK’s public information campaign, the term ‘vaccine hesitancy’ emerged. It is being specifically applied to Black people, who the campaign reveals is bombarded by and reeling from misinformation alongside suspicion. The Queen of England popped up to add her voice to the rollout campaign. To those who had misgivings about taking the vaccine, the Queen said they “ought to think about other people rather than themselves”. Her addition to the public information campaign is tone-deaf. Crucially, her voice – together with the public education campaign approach – uses public shaming as a tool. It disregards Britain’s role and relationship around health, racism, abuse, historical and contemporary trauma that Black people live with created by colonialism and systemic racism. It is the erasure of Britain’s role, the denial of racism, and its impact that fuels suspicion and mistrust. Dismissing and diminishing trauma does not serve public confidence. That erasure, that silencing has consequences. Those consequences manifest in suspicion and mistrust. One major issue is the inability to recognize the vulnerability Black people feel due to systemic racism and a legion of research that shows how disproportionately impacted Black people are due to systemic inequity in healthcare. The absence of compassion and empathy, the failure to recognize the role of trauma and to address it by exploring community-friendly and community-effective methods to engage means there is little compassion applied in the public information campaign. The Queen’s appearance is bizarre at best, but the idea of a white, deeply privileged woman who is part of a family and a nation that colonized islands and nations, and whose people built a healthcare system in which Black people do not get equitable treatment lecturing Black folks about selfishness is egregious. The story becomes about Black people’s refusal to be responsible, instead of a reckoning and confrontation with systemic racism, healthcare inequity and treating vulnerability in Black bodies with compassion, not abuse.
I lived and worked in New York for 8 years, and I am leading a project – The Black Frontline – where we are gathering stories from Black doctors and nurses across the USA about their experiences during the pandemic. The term vaccine-hesitancy has also emerged and is applied to Black people in America. What also emerged across social media were narratives of disorganized engagement regarding vaccine rollout, horrific stories of white people impersonating black vulnerable people to jump ahead to get the vaccine, family members dealing with anti-Blackness as they fought to get the vaccine for the vulnerable elders of their families and community. That too was the manifestation of traumas from longstanding systemic inequity within the healthcare sector, and a pandemic politicized by a former president with white supremacists as key supporters, decrying science. Interestingly, as white people campaigned to be mask-less across America, endangering others’ lives due to the politicization of the pandemic and the negation of science – no-one came up with a term such as ‘mask-stupidity’ to describe that behaviour. What was powerful – and a necessary reminder of the power of community – is an example in Philadelphia, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. They did physician-led vaccination drives in black neighbourhoods. The huge turnout decried the ‘hard to reach’ label applied to Black folks, and revealed the significance of treating vulnerability, reticence and fear with compassion, care and meeting people where they are with truth and transparency.
Ultimately, COVID has devastated our global Black family. Our communal make up is forever transformed. We are reeling with losses uncounted and uncountable. Here in Ghana, we are experiencing a spike in COVID numbers, but high recovery rates and thankfully much lower death tolls than in the West. Every lost life is a profound loss. Global economies are devastated. Lockdown has robbed us of the crucial sweetness of community to ease, soothe, comfort, laugh, play and heal.
Taking or not taking the vaccine is a personal choice with family, communal, global consequences. For us on the Continent, COVID has elevated the call to demand Africa’s scientists develop local vaccines that mine the wealth of Africa’s rich resources and dispense with the white people as health saviors trope. COVID is a call to reckon with a legacy of untreated trauma around race, Africa, systemic racism, colonialism and mutilated power.
COVID has already taken too much, and too many. Let’s not allow it to take any more. The vaccine is a path forward.
I have taken mine, as has my beautiful mother. I invite you to join us, and take yours when your turn comes.