A few months ago, at a press conference on the release of Covid-19 vaccines in New York State, Governor Cuomo mentioned “a real challenge” with the goals of his program: the hesitancy of African-Americans to participate. Among essential city workers—police, firefighters and teachers —17 percent are Black, but only 5 percent have taken the shots, Cuomo noted. (In comparison, 75 percent of city workers are white, and 74 percent of them have chosen to take the vaccine.)
Although accessibility of injection sites can be a contributing factor, Cuomo admitted this wasn’t the prime reason for disparity; Direct access had been given to city hospital workers, but even there, African-Americans “underperformed”:
They didn’t have to schedule a vaccine, they didn’t have to get in their car and go drive and wait on a line. Hospital management said to the hospital workers, “We have the vaccine, please take it.” It’s in the building that they work. Well, who actually took it and who didn’t take it? 70 percent of the workers were white, 63 of the people who took the vaccine are white. 17 of the workers are African-American, only 10 of the recipients are African-American.
A day later, Trammel Thompson, leader of the Progressive Action caucus of Transit Workers Union Local 100 of New York, made an address confirming Black vaccine skepticism. Thompson’s only factual disagreement with Cuomo was the politician’s framing of hesitancy as suspicion of Donald Trump (Cuomo no doubt remembered Kamala Harris’ statement in October that she wouldn’t take a vaccine approved by the then president.) “Yes, it was approved by the Trump administration,” Cuomo had said. “It was also approved by the New York State Department of Health.”
“Cuomo has lost his mind!” declared the African-American labor leader. “You have to be very ignorant to think that Black and Latino distrust in the government started in 2016 when Trump was elected president. That’s what they want us to believe.” In fact, there seemed to be good reason to distrust both Cuomo and the New York State Department of Health as well: These officials facilitated the deaths of 5000 senior citizens in April 2020 by knowingly discharging Covid-positive hospital patients into nursing homes.
This is the context in which Andrew Cuomo has made freedom of assembly conditional on personal vaccination.
Last month, the NY Assembly Health Committee voted 14-12 to pass Assembly Bill A279, a bill that would require all adults’ vaccination records to be centralized in a single state database. None of the Black members of the Committee voted for it. If passed the state will know who has received shots, and more importantly who has not. Creating a database of this kind is an essential first step to enforcing adult vaccination mandates and vaccine passports, a long-desired goal of the vaccine industry. The only feasible use for it is to identify people who have not complied with state forced vaccination measures and target non-compliant people.
The Covid-19 vaccination rate among African-American New Yorkers is half the overall average. Numerous polls show the highest level of skepticism about the Covid-19 shots is among Blacks, and that skepticism is reflected in the votes of their representatives. With the persistence and spread of adverse incidents, even after the “corrective pause” of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, there is evidence that covid vaccine hesitancy in general has actually increased in recent months. Opposition voting in the Assembly appears to be led by Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and ardent socialist who is has represented East New York and Crown Heights for over 20 years. His wife Inez Barron currently represents the same area for the New York City Council. They represent concerns that Black and Hispanic New Yorkers will be disproportionately targeted for surveillance and punishment if this bill is passed.
Trammel Thompson of the Transit Workers Union has argued that a government that genuinely wanted to free us of disease would be focused on the root causes of what destroys our metabolic health, not just promoting a treatment for a single virus (The 2020 decline in life expectancy is part of a trend that began in 2014) : “The real pandemic is poor healthcare, poor economics, poor education, Until those things change, I don’t really see Blacks and Latinos stepping up to the plate to take a vaccine they don’t trust.”
This is not a marginal concern of “anti-vaxxers.” Americans on the whole are deeply ambivalent about the use of vaccine passes for discriminating who may and may not access locations, face stigma, and evade restrictions. The most recent national poll showed a slight majority of respondents thought official vaccine cards could improve safety, but it also showed a majority worried that vaccine cards “will grant special privileges to those who have them,” and 46 percent saying “they would be uncomfortable with cards’ distribution.” Not only did the three Black members of the Assembly Health Committee oppose the bill, there is virtually no Black support in the State Senate. The bill has only garnered one vote from the five African-Americans who have voted so far.
It is now questionable if anti-vaxxer is even a minority position given the establishment’s broad use of the label. Merriam-Webster defines the term as those “who oppose vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” (It’s been argued that this makes 79 percent of Americans “anti-vax.”) As one prominent biologist points out:
“The way they’ve written that, it’s a mott and bailey. It describes a person who opposes all vaccination or laws that mandate any vaccination. Any law regarding any vaccination! Those are extremes of a continuum. I’d say you’re a freaking idiot if you don’t oppose any vaccination or if you say in advance, ‘I approve of any vaccination that comes down the pike at me and I approve all laws that mandate any vaccination.’ What kind of a moron would you have to be to take that position? That makes all reasonable people ‘anti-vaxxers’…Webster’s definition is written so that it is either maximally narrow or maximally broad depending upon what mood you’re in, and that means you can use it arbitrarily as a weapon.”
Potentially, it’s a very dangerous weapon. When the Supreme Court made the notorious 1927 decision which legalized compelled sterilization, it cited earlier laws compelling vaccination as precedent. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, backed by seven justices including Louis Brandeis, wrote, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” That decision (which has never been overturned) opened the door to tens of thousands of working-class people being sterilized on state orders. Ultimately, a disproportionate number of those violated were Black and indigenous, although the policy began on poor whites. This long-standing connection between medical mandates, public health rationales, experimental treatments, and eugenics is why many object to new vaccination bills on the grounds that they violate the Nuremberg Code, and why the World Health Organization itself has opposed vaccine passports. (A law directly mandating Covid vaccination has also been introduced in the New York legislature.)
Please contact the Assembly about A279. Start with Speaker Carl Heastie. Comment on the members’ Facebook pages, @ them if you use Twitter, email or call them directly with your reasons for opposing the bill. Find your district representative here:
Carl Heastie, Speaker of the Assembly
(518) 455-3791, (718) 654-6539