2021 | Opinion

Opinion: To conquer vaccine inequities, focus on increasing accessibility

Governor's 'hesitancy' excuse is a cover for a poor rollout

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After a year of lockdowns, isolation and mourning, there is finally light. All across the world, vaccines are getting into arms and the promise of a return to normal seems within reach.

But truly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will demand vaccinations in every community. And Maryland’s vaccine rollout, as with every other facet of this pandemic, has been defined by a disgraceful degree of inequity.

When it comes to vaccines, Black and Latino communities in Maryland have seemingly been forced to the end of the line.

Across the state, infection and vaccination rates have been glaringly disparate. Despite making up 43% of Maryland’s population and 46% of COVID-19 cases, Black and Latino communities combined have only been provided with an alarming 24% of the vaccines distributed in our state.

Many of our state’s leaders, including Gov. Larry Hogan, have attempted to excuse away this startling disparity by suggesting that Black and Latino Marylanders are simply “refusing to take the vaccine.”

But both state and national polling shows that there is little difference across races in reluctance to take the vaccine. Excusing disparities with phrases like “vaccine hesitancy” incorrectly and unfairly casts blame on our state’s marginalized population — who simply cannot take shots that are inaccessible to them.

Take Maryland’s most diverse district, Montgomery County, where the state did not establish a mass vaccination site until four months after vaccines were first administered in Maryland, in spite of months of begging from local leaders.

Even today, for those who cannot give hours of their time calling pharmacies, registering for a vaccine is confusing, complicated and inaccessible. We’ve found it difficult to help get our own parents a shot — struggling to navigate an awful, decentralized process.

Instead of acknowledging the frustrating and confusing nature of vaccination registration, this month, Hogan appeared to take the inaccessibility of the whole process as a given, proposing that those who haven’t been able to get a vaccine could simply “get in your car… drive to the beach, stop in Salisbury, get everybody vaccinated, and then go to Ocean City and get some Thrasher’s French fries.”

For the vast majority of working people in Maryland, this suggestion is at best unserious and, at worst, insulting.

Our state’s marginalized communities should not be blamed or further burdened for the inaccessible processes produced by historic systemic injustice and modern-day disregard. Our state must meet people where they are.

The addition of a site in Montgomery County is a step in the right direction, further breaking down the barrier of transportation in obtaining a vaccine.

Our community and state leaders must go further in opening “pop-up” vaccination sites in churches, recreation centers, schools and other highly accessible locations.

Those who make decisions about vaccine distribution must intentionally engage with community leaders of religious groups, cultural organizations, and other safe spaces for underrepresented communities to encourage vaccinations.

The issue of systemic unequal access, of course, extends far beyond the COVID-19 vaccine.

If we want a more equitable community on the other side of this pandemic, we have to take the lessons of the vaccine distribution into every facet of local public administration.

Whether it be the difficulty of filing for unemployment, finding temporary housing, or voicing opinions at oddly timed County Council or school board meetings, our systems are not currently structured for the working people they are purporting to serve. We can and must build better, more accessible processes across our community.

Faced with an alarming disparity with profound public health implications, our local and state leaders have a choice. They can either make excuses and avoid responsibility, or blaze new ground and lead our community forward.

To return to a just normal, we must forge modern systems that meet our community’s marginalized populations where they are.

Nate Tinbite is a former student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a recent graduate of John F. Kennedy High School. Ananya Tadikonda is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Matt Post is a former student member of the board and a graduate of Sherwood High School.

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