CHICAGO — Like many Black people in Chicago, Etta Davis is afraid of catching Covid-19. She has a heart condition and diabetes and tries hard to wear her mask and stay safe. Yet, she doesn’t place much hope in the coming vaccine.
She hears city leaders say her community will be prioritized, but as a lower-income, Black woman on the South Side, she says she has good reason to doubt them.
“We’re not gonna get it first, we know this,” she said. “I’m just keeping it real. Money talks to the people with the money. They’re going to get it first.”
The city of Chicago is gearing up to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine as early as next week, and officials are emphasizing that the process will be free and equitable. But many Black people, who are the most likely to die from the coronavirus, do not believe what they are hearing.
Just as the city is promoting vaccination in lower-income, Black neighborhoods, it is planning the shutdown of Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, a historic teaching hospital beloved by many Black people on the South Side. The coming closure has sparked anger and protests by residents who view the decision as evidence that city leaders and health officials do not care about their access to health care.
Davis said she is struggling to understand how a hospital serving a Black community could close in the middle of a pandemic disproportionately harming it. Black people have accounted for nearly 40 percent of Covid-19-related deaths in Chicago, but they comprise less than a third of the population. That disparity, Black residents said, makes it hard to trust officials who say Black people will receive a safe, equitable vaccine.
At a protest outside Mercy Hospital on Wednesday, Robin Hood, a pastor for Redeemed Outreach Ministries in Chicago, said the closure would sow distrust among community members, who have seen three other hospitals close across the city since 2018.
“They don’t trust the government. They watched what happened to hospitals being closed in Chicago over the last 20 years. We’ve had several hospitals close,” Hood said. “Our communities are always left behind when it comes to the most basic needs, and that’s health care.”
Trinity Health, which owns Mercy Hospital, has said the institution is not profitable enough and could close as soon as February. Patients and activists have asked the city to facilitate a sale of the hospital to a new owner who would commit to providing care for poor and Black Chicagoans.
With no current buyer, Mercy Hospital CEO Carol Schneider said the site will be turned into an urgent care center. Before it closes, the hospital will administer the Covid-19 vaccine “so all of us are working together with the city of Chicago to make sure that the vaccine gets to those that need it most as soon as possible.”
Chicagoan Antwain Miller shares Davis’ concern that “everything’s about money.”
“I feel like the most disadvantaged folks would be left behind,” said Miller, who attended a protest against the closure and mentioned the long history of medical abuse of Black patients and his distrust of medical providers. “Would they give us the full-fledged vaccine? They might give us a generic version of the vaccine.”
There is no “generic” vaccine and no evidence that Black people will receive anything different than others, but Miller is not alone in wondering if Black people could be harmed or mistreated by providers.
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Chicago resident Yolanda Pitts said she and her children will not take the vaccine: “The African American community, we’re just not trusting you. Because we do feel like we’re the first person that they want to test it on.”
Even residents who are looking forward to taking it do not fault their wary neighbors. Jitu Brown, a born-and-raised South Sider and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a racial justice group, blamed vaccination failures on politicians who lost the trust of the people they serve.
“Many of these people that beg for folks’ votes and talk a progressive talk maintain the status quo. Ignoring community voice is the status quo. Underserving Black and brown communities is not courageous, it’s cowardly,” Brown said. “Be courageous, face this country’s ugly and commit to transforming. If not, then shut up.”