‘Rational distrust’ of health system spurs COVID-19 racial disparities, KU associate professor says

By: - December 24, 2021 12:26 pm

In her essay titled “Parallel Pandemics: The American Problem of Anti Enforcement, Rational Distrust and COVID-19,” a University of Kansas associate professor notes how distrust in health care is furthering COVID-19 racial disparities (Bill Oxford/Getty Images)

TOPEKA — As racial inequities related to COVID-19 persist in Kansas, an associate professor argues difficulties persuading many Americans in communities of color to get vaccinated stems from a rational distrust of the health system.

Eligible Black Kansans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at a rate of 38% and Indigenous Kansans at a rate of about 18% compared with their white counterparts at 53%. Latino Kansans are vaccinated at a lower rate and have contracted COVID-19 at a faster rate than non-Latino people across the state.

In an essay in the Seton Hall Review, Najarian Peters, an associate professor of law at the University of Kansas, said a pandemic of racial inequality has led to the current state where there is a distrust between people of color and the health, law and policy systems.

“The hesitancy at the beginning, as well as some of the residual skepticism, comes out of what I call rational distrust,” Peters said. “We are navigating rational distrust during the pandemic because prior to COVID-19, America was dealing with the pandemic of racial inequality sustained by the anti-enforcement approach to laws and policies that would bring inequity to heel.”

Titled “Parallel Pandemics: The American Problem of Anti Enforcement, Rational Distrust and COVID-19,” her essay argues that the imposed lived experience of racially marginalized people has created distrust in systems that often reinforce the marginalization. Pervasive inequalities emphasized throughout “starts of progress followed by retreat and deep compromise” have fostered an uneasiness that continues today, Peters asserted.

These inequalities and sources of distrust are present in today’s health care system, Peters said. For example, in the 2020 March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card, referencing data from 2016 to 2018, the premature birth rate for African American women in Kansas was 51% higher than the rate among all other women, at 13.6%.

According to the Kansas Maternal Mortality Report from those same years, African American women accounted for 14% of pregnancy-associated deaths but only 7.1% of births in Kansas.

“Health care disparities for racially marginalized people seeking assistance and care in health care facilities is a historical fact — the most famous of which include the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks,” Peters said.

To address the lack of trust in these communities, people must first turn to and accept the history of racial marginality in this arena, Peters said. She said campaigns to improve COVID-19 vaccination rates would benefit from understanding the uneasiness exhibited by racially marginalized people.

“If, as we say, we intend to eliminate COVID-19, we cannot do so by getting back to normal, because normalcy is what created the pandemic parallels of race-based health disparities and social marginalization,” Peters said. “The pandemic — including the deployment of the vaccine — presents opportunities to become a real version of what this nation claimed to be all along.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.