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Race and Medical Experiments — documentary tells the shameful truth behind vaccine hesitancy

A Channel 4 documentary looks at the hidden history of medical experiments on black people that are now to blame for fear of vaccines
Issue 2790
Seyi Rhodes (left) talks to Omar Neil, whose family members were victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment

Omar Neil’s (right) family members were victims of an experiment on the spread of syphilis

Why are black and Asian people far less likely to be vaccinated against Covid than white people? Liberals and reactionaries have both been quick to come forward with answers.

Most blame the supposed hold of “superstitious” ideas and religion—as well as peer group and family pressure. Even some that describe themselves as against prejudice are content to call the unvaccinated as “stupid”, “irrational” and believers of conspiracy theories.

But Seyi Rhodes’s new Channel4 documentary has a far better starting point. He says medical experiments on black and Asian people over more than 100 years has created a justifiable fear that health services cannot be trusted.

Rhodes travels from Britain to Tuskegee in the US Deep South. There scientists conducted a ­disgraceful investigation into the deadly disease syphilis. They wanted to observe how the disease spread, and to see what happened if it went undiagnosed.

For over forty years from the early 1930s onwards, the experiment kept secret the fact that people in their study had tested positive for the disease. Even when new and effective treatments became available, they still hid what they knew.

The scientists even arranged that local doctors would not tell patients they had syphilis—and that led to it being contracted by partners and children.

Rhodes meets with living relations of the men who were unwittingly inducted into the trial. They describe a sense of shame and embarrassment at having been fooled. But he also meets people who today have the story of Tuskegee on their minds when it comes to getting vaccinated against Covid.

The documentary also points to something more hopeful. In a black barbershop in Washington, Rhodes meets a doctor who has pioneered taking the vaccination programme, and the message about its safety, direct to the communities most in need.

Taking up his seat, he vaccinates customers as they come in and takes up arguments that arise.

In turn, he educates the barbers. But the barbers themselves become the best propagandists for getting jabbed because they best understand the concerns of those who are fearful.

When public health officials heard of the scheme, they tried to replicate it in cities across the US. In many ways this is exactly the approach that was needed to reach those most disaffected by the medical establishment.

Rhodes also discusses how the US secret service used a fake vaccination programme in Pakistan to obtain DNA information in their hunt for terrorist Osama Bin Laden. The DNA results allowed the CIA to track the Bin Laden family and ultimately to kill him.

A victory for the US state? Perhaps. But the entirely predictable ­by-product was the refusal of millions of Pakistanis to take any further vaccinations—something that endangers life to this day.

My only criticism of Rhodes’ thoughtful and inquisitive documentary is that Channel 4 should have fast-tracked its making and put it on our screens months ago.


Race and Medical Experiments: What’s the Truth? is on Channel 4, 10pm Monday 31 Jan, and then available on All 4

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