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America’s long and ugly history of vaccine scepticism

View of a home decorated in honour of Dolly Parton, with a "Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vacciiiine!!!" sign meant to evoke the lyrics of Parton's song "Jolene" on January 28, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling traditional Mardi Gras activities, New Orleanians are decorating their homes and businesses to resemble Mardi Gras floats. - Credit: Getty Images

Bonnie Greer on how American’s obsession with personal freedom makes Joe Biden’s fight against coronavirus even tougher

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, ’cause once you’re dead then that’s a bit too late.”

And to the tune of her great song Jolene, Dolly Parton got herself vaccinated for all the world to see.

In the celebrity-obsessed US, this should have been enough to cause a stampede in the number of people getting what we called “shots” into arms. And while there are no numbers that contradict that this did not happen, America has a long and ugly history of vaccine scepticism all the way to vaccine racism – if not on the scale of Nazi Germany, then certainly in the intent.

The ugly irony of this is that vaccination in the United States is believed to have been introduced by an enslaved African man from what is now Ghana in about 1716. He was given the name Onesimus by his owner, Cotton Mather, he of the infamous 17th century Salem witch trials.

Onesimus used a method, which he explained was common in West Africa, of injecting some of the disease into the skin, building what we now understand as immunity. The disease that caused the epidemic of 1721 in Boston was probably smallpox, and Mather, promoting his slave’s method, helped save the day.

Onesimus, of course, did not get the credit for this until 2016. By that time, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate had become not only a medical decision, but a political one.

Vaccine scepticism in the US, while most prominent on the right, is bi-partisan.

On the left, there is the California variety, in places like Santa Monica where vaccine scepticism centres around the drive to prevent children from getting vaccinated.

Some aspects of this drive are linked to the wellness industry selling what some call “autism cures”. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a nephew of JFK, is a prominent anti-vaccine campaigner who has morphed into an anti-coronavirus safety measures advocate.

He addressed a massive rally against safety measures last August in Berlin. The crowd included vaccine sceptics, conspiracy theorists and far right groups. All rallying together.

In the African American community, vaccine scepticism arises not only as a result of historic racism, but from a very specific and recent example: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

This was an ethically and medically unjustified experiment on poor, rural African American men in Macon County, Alabama between 1932 and 1972. The men were injected with syphilis, not told that what they were getting was that, and promised free health care, something any rural American would be happy to have.

The atrocity continued even after funding for it from the United States Health Service ceased in 1932. It lasted through the Centre For Disease Control, which took it over and ran it until 1972. 

Administered out of what is called in the US “an historically black college”, The Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, the experiment was trusted by the community it infected.

And while compensation to the victims and their families lured into this racist experiment ran into the millions, no amount of money could make up for the medical and mental horror of a disease that impacted and continues to impact generations.

But vaccine scepticism in the African American community and on the left in relation to childhood vaccination is no match for what is happening on the right. Some of the Republican Party and small government advocates have weaponised anti-mask wearing as a badge of liberty.

Take the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. In spite of the fact that Texas is a coronavirus hotspot, Abbot has declared the Lone Star State “open”, which means that there are no restrictions.

While President Biden can issue a mask mandate on federal property and trains because they operate interstate, he cannot issue a mandate at state level. Enter Abbott. 

After the catastrophe of the collapse of the Texas power grid during the climate change catastrophe of a winter storm that you would normally only find in Michigan or Wisconsin, he found a way to redeem himself and Texas in the eyes of the world in a “don’t look at that, look at this” gesture of utter irresponsibility.  He has turned the lights out a second time.

While businesses maintain their own rules, it is easy to imagine the almost literal face-off between a shop employee and a guy who refuses to mask-up.

The right has made coronavirus denial a matter of personal liberty. Because liberty, as the individual interprets it, is what many believe the USA is all about.

This collision of the real-life experience of African Americans; and the take-up by the right of anti-masking is a manifestation of something that lies deep at the root of being an American.

James Clayburn, the House majority leader and prominent African American politician who, through his championing of Joe Biden early on helping him to win the Presidency, has called America “an experiment.” And it is.

The experiment is one in which various human beings from different nationalities, different ethnicities come together to form what is often referred to as “a more perfect union.”

America, for every American, is an active, living, constant and personal concept. The American Dream is literal and creates a people who take it as their personal duty, responsibility and, for many, divine mandate, to achieve that goal in the way that they see fit.

So you can have a Martin Luther King daring to stand up against hundreds of years of law and custom and practice that oppressed his people, and believe that he would prevail, and a QAnon supporter who believes that Donald Trump is hiding behind the mask of a man called ‘Joe Biden’ and it was Q’s bidding to “liberate” the Capitol.

Vaccine scepticism is part of a larger reality, a bigger landscape. The landscape is called freedom and liberty. Those who use it to destroy are capturing the whirlwind.

Dr King was assassinated by a man who believed that his liberty, his very being, was being infringed upon by an inherently inferior people. 

Donald Trump has harnessed a distrust of the federal government already latent in the land and used it for his own ends.

And then there is Texas.

The UK can fit almost three times into it. Imagine what it would be like if the British government declared all restrictions lifted and you can then better understand what is being unleashed there.

It is known as the Lone Star state because it stood up to Mexico in the 19th century and declared itself a republic at one time, It holds within itself the myth of America. This myth will kill thousands, not only in the state but outside of it, too.

In 1775, during the revolution, a politician by the name of Christopher Gadsden inspired a yellow flag with a coiled snake on it.

This flag, used today by second amendment evangelists and other gun rights advocates, has the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.”

This motto is the heart of every American, no matter what political affiliation.

This is the motto that we all say. In our own way.

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