Vaccine Inequality and Structural Racist Optics

by Oscar Rosales Castaneda

In early February, The Seattle Times published a report that provides a preliminary glimpse at who has had access to the first set of COVID vaccines that were doled out. As much as I want to tell myself that this is an incomplete picture and that the first set of vaccines is reflective of a strategy to inoculate first responders and medical personnel, I still feel that the preliminary rollout failed to address a key consideration. Namely, the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of color and economically marginalized folks.

This may be a broader “chicken or the egg”-styled philosophical query, but to be blunt, the vaccine rollout strategy appears to be almost as equally racist as it is classist. This is likely not the intent, I would hope, but it does continue to illustrate the effect of structural racism and how class oppression is molded in a way that mirrors a racialized workforce. Unfortunately, our community members are being made sacrificial offerings to COVID to placate the capitalist gods of commerce. It is disappointing to see that these workers who are disproportionately represented in the essential workforce are not also strategically included in this first wave of vaccination efforts.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, African Americans and Latinos account for 6% and 32% of total COVID cases statewide, while only being 4% and 13% of the total state population. Similarly, according to the Seattle & King County Public Health website, African Americans and Latinos make up 11.9% and 24% of total COVID cases while only being 6.4% and 10% of the total county population. Through the last year, both these demographics have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic relative to their actual number of the total population at the state and county levels.

Given these infection rates, it is concerning that the vaccination percentages in Washington state are 2.2% for African Americans and 4.8% for Latinos, as reported by The Seattle Times. Seattle & King County Public Health offers a local snapshot that reports 8.5% of vaccines have been given to African Americans and 6.5% to Latinos. These vaccines proportions in the state, and in King County for Latinos, are by and large far lower than the total COVID percentages for each community. It is important to note that these figures may shift as data continues streaming in.

Two months into the soft reopening of life post-vaccine, we see an attempt to return to some semblance of normalcy. I argue that this is a luxury we cannot afford. “Normalcy” is what carved and shaped our current reality. We need to understand the social determinants of health that left these communities prone to a global pandemic. It is time to be intentional in our collective efforts and plan a better future.

Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and studies social work at the University of Washington.

Featured Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) via Unsplash.

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