My quest to uncover why so many Black people mistrust medicine

In January last year I had an experience that many of us have come to dread since the start of the pandemic: My mum sent me a Covid conspiracy ‘meme’ on WhatsApp.

’Covid is dead!’ it proclaimed, before launching into a complex and at times technical-sounding description of the secret ‘cure’ for coronavirus that ’they’ don’t want you to know about: African Lemongrass Tea.

It’s a herbal tea that’s well-known on the continent and is used as a ‘traditional medicine’ for all sorts of ailments. 

According to this WhatsApp message, it contains complex chemicals that have been proven to stop Covid spreading, like a vaccine would. The sentence that jumped out to me was this: ‘Our African Fever Grass Tea has all these chemicals already in it.’ 

They were explicitly targeting people of African descent with this Covid conspiracy and implicitly casting doubt on the need for a vaccine, just as the AstraZeneca vax was being rolled out in the UK.

In reality, there is no tea that ‘kills’ coronavirus – but it was a time of uncertainty and I could see that many Black people were reverting to what has become one of the oldest and easiest of fallback positions: When in doubt, don’t trust White People. Especially not White Doctors, Scientists, Police and government officials.

The reasons why people feel like that are complex, but history and historical abuses/failures always get mentioned. I was worried more people might start to think like this about Covid and the vaccine, which was just being rolled out here in the UK. 

People of African, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani descent who had already borne the brunt of the pandemic reaching out to their culture, religion and history and starting to shun the vaccine altogether.

A few days later that fear seemed like it had become a reality.

‘Covid vaccine: 72% of black people unlikely to have jab, UK survey finds’, screamed the headlines.

The survey blamed, ‘Historical issues of unethical healthcare research, and structural and institutional racism and discrimination’ for low levels of ‘BAME uptake’ of the vaccine.

I knew immediately what it was talking about. I didn’t know the dates and facts, but the term ‘historical issues’ with healthcare rhymed with something I’d picked up over the years from Black friends and family. 

A vague awareness that ‘healthcare’ hasn’t always worked in the interests of Black and Brown people. Whispers of medical experiments, drugs tests and governments plotting against people of colour. I knew that the online conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this information at a time like this.

And so the idea for my upcoming documentary was born. 

Called ‘Race and Medical Experiments: What’s the Truth’, I decided to go on a journey to find out why so many Black and Brown people have inherited this mistrust of medicine and medical science.

I wanted to find out the historical facts behind the myths and rumours that were by now circulating on social media. It was a journey that took me to some of the darkest and most shameful parts of human history.

One place I couldn’t avoid was the American Deep South. In Tuskegee, Alabama, I met the former mayor of the city, Omar Neal whose family hid a dark secret for decades: Syphilis.

His Uncle and Great Uncle took part in what was known at the time as ‘The United States Public Health Service Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.’

As the name suggests, it was a study conducted by the American Government between 1932 and 1972 to find out what would happen to Black men if they had syphilis and it was left untreated. 

The whole point was that the men who took part should live with – and die of – syphilis, so their bodies could be examined. Although, as I found out, Omar’s family didn’t know they were part of a study at all. 

They were told they were going to the doctor to get ‘special treatment for bad blood’. In fact they and the 600 other men in the study were denied treatment for syphilis – on purpose. 

Their medical records stated that they were part of a study and no doctor should attempt to treat their syphilis. Even when Penicillin (the modern treatment for syphilis) became available in the mid 40s, the men weren’t given it. 

For decades the Tuskegee Syphillis Study was being referenced by academics in medical journals, but it was hidden from the men involved and from the wider, non-medical public. 

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When they found out (a journalist broke the story in 1972) the study was quickly wrapped up, but the damage to Omar’s family was already done. 

Syphilis, a taboo disease associated with promiscuity and societal ‘depravity’ had been in the family and the whole community for generations. Wives and girlfriends became infected and children were born with the disease, but nobody talked about it openly.

They’d heard whispers that other Black people in town had it too and the effect was incredibly damaging. After all, the racist society they lived in had always said that Black people were morally corrupt and prone to diseases like syphilis, in fact that was a premise the doctors had when they first conceived of the study.

By the time Omar became mayor the truth was known and then-President Clinton had apologised publicly – but Omar told me it’s only now that Tuskegee has recovered its self image and learned to call this experiment what he thinks it was: white supremacy in action.

The ‘father of modern gynaecology’ experimented on Black slave women before opening a surgery for White women

The Tuskegee experiment is an important part of the story of why some Black people don’t trust doctors. White doctors don’t always know about it, but their Black patients often do. 

And what they ‘know’ is often a bastardised version of the truth. On the streets of Tuskegee, Baltimore and even here in London, multiple Black people told me the study involved injecting people with syphilis, which it didn’t, but you can see how these rumours play into the hands of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists – the truth is almost more shocking than the fiction.

Down the road from Tuskegee in Montgomery, Alabama, I discovered something else. The ‘father of modern gynaecology’ experimented on Black slave women before opening a surgery for White women and revolutionising his profession. 

His name was Dr J Marion Sims and the women in question were operated on without anaesthetic, sometimes enduring 30 or more experimental operations. 

To Dr Sims these Black women weren’t entirely human so he wasn’t worried about their pain or their right to say no. Some historians think he may even have got one of the women pregnant. 

Dr Sims was perfecting his technique for applying internal stitches on women who experience tearing during childbirth. Gynaecologists still study his work and I saw a commemorative plaque outside his old surgery in downtown Montgomery, but the women aren’t even alluded to.

While Dr Sims is celebrated – his statue stands outside the Alabama state capitol – Black women are still four times more likely to die in childbirth than White women and that hardly gets mentioned. 

It makes some, like Michelle Brewer, feel as if their health is only of interest to doctors when it could benefit White women. 

Michelle is an artist from Montgomery and I met her outside her studio. She told me that being treated by White doctors in Alabama has always been an uncomfortable experience for her, because of the way they treated her – even before she heard about Dr Sims. 

Her response to Sims’ legacy was to create a statue of her own called ‘The Mothers of Gynaecology.’ It depicts three beautiful, towering figures of Black women who represent three of the women that Dr Sims experimented on – Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. 

When I asked Michelle if she would take the Covid vaccine her answer was an emphatic, ‘Absolutely not!’ I wasn’t surprised to hear her say it. As she puts it, ‘Black women already have a mistrust of almost everything, related to what we go through in the health service, so vaccine hesitancy is only natural.’

These stories of medical racism aren’t limited to The Deep South though. 

We also dug up records from here in the UK of experiments the British Government carried out using mustard gas on Indian men. British doctors working for the Secret Weapons Research Facility based in Porton Down, Wiltshire wanted to find out, ‘whether the native is more or less susceptible to mustard gas burns than a European.’

They were hoping to find that Indian people would be more susceptible to the gas, then it could be more effective against Indian people in war.

It should be mentioned that MOD has emphasised that these events took place nearly a century ago and are not comparable with today’s standards.

On my travels, I also met Saeed Shah, the Pakistani journalist who broke the story of how the CIA had caught Osama Bin Laden. Saeed told me how they used a fake vaccine campaign to gain entry to Bin Laden’s house and get DNA from his children.

Unusually, Saeed says, when he broke the story the CIA confirmed it was true and all hell broke loose. 

The Pakistani Taliban were already telling people that vaccines are a Western plot to control Muslim people, so the CIA had given them an easy propaganda victory. 

Health workers were shot and killed on the streets of Pakistan and to this day it’s almost impossible to carry out a vaccination campaign of any sort without the issue coming up. 

Polio is on the rise and Covid vaccines are being shunned – even as the country struggles to get hold of enough doses. And its not just in Pakistan, all over the Muslim world the story confirmed a long held suspicion that health workers who get foreign funding are actually spies – which has lead to deep suspicion of all vaccines.

In Africa, my journey brought me face to face with the reminder that the racist attitudes underpinning many of these historical stories still hasn’t gone away. 

He died in pain knowing the drugs he had tested would have saved him just as they were saving thousands… in the West

Lydia Namubiru lives in Uganda, which has been through a major disease epidemic within her lifetime, so she has seen how the Covid pandemic could end. 

In the 1990s Uganda was battling a wave of HIV/Aids cases. Lydia’s uncle Josiah had HIV and in 1994 he was approached by American doctors who were trialling a new drug combination therapy that could help him. 

He agreed to take part in the trial and the drug worked miracles for him. He felt as if he’d been cured. He went back to university then got a management job and then the drug trial suddenly ended. 

It had been a success and the drug was being released on the market – making its manufacturers millions of dollars in profit. But Josiah couldn’t afford it. Lydia was only a little girl at the time, but she remembers her mum saying that she could sell everything she owned and still only afford a few months worth of drugs for Josiah. 

He died in pain three years later, knowing that the drugs he had tested would have saved him just as they were saving thousands of other HIV positive people – in the West.

Lydia pulled no punches when I met her. ‘It hammers home that we are not in solidarity and as all of the fights over Covid vaccines show, we’re not even equal now,’ she told me. 

Lydia also said she would happily take a Covid vaccine, but they’re not easy to get in Uganda. The West has promised to donate millions of doses, but they haven’t. It’s a far cry from the early days of the pandemic, when Africa was being seen very differently.

‘If I could be provocative,’ she adds, ‘Should we not do this study (Covid vaccine trials) in Africa where there are no masks, treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s done, by the way, for certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?’

The common thread in all these stories is that these trials, experiments and studies were all carried out on Black and Brown people because they were seen not to matter – legally, economically and morally. 

Doctors have done these things because society lets them get away with it and society still struggles with racist, opportunistic attitudes. 

So while my mother and I are now vaccinated, making this film taught me that many people have solid historical reasons to be wary of vaccines and doctors. 

So, out of respect, I will let them take their time and come to the vaccine when they are good and ready.

Race and Medical Experiments: What’s the Truth, part of a new strand of Secret History docs on C4.  Monday 31 January at 10pm

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