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Why vaccination presents an ethical dilemma for us, but remains the best way to keep our families safe

Sometimes I think about the fact that it is a small miracle I exist. 

The generational chain of events could have swung in the most microscopic direction and I wouldn’t be here. 

Here’s what I mean: my family should be so much bigger. My Great-Great Grandfather Billie Gorrie married my Great-Great Grandmother Emily Fenton and they had ten children. One of those children was my great grandmother Linda Gorrie; my Nanny. By the time she was stolen at eight years of age, only three of her siblings were still alive: Uncle Ronnie, Aunty Myra and Aunty Teresa. The rest of her siblings died at birth, or later from tuberculosis. Nanny nursed several of them from this world to the next. 

Uncle Ronnie was institutionalised in a psychiatric institution most of his life. 

Aunty Theresa died from tuberculosis two years after being stolen and is buried off country in Ararat, Victoria. 

Out of those nine children, Nanny was the only one to have kids of her own. Nanny was stolen and kept at Royal Park Depot. She had my grandfather at 16. Immediately after his birth, Nanny was sterilised without her consent. 

How many more children would she have had? How many children would her siblings have had? How much more family should we have? 

I spent time with Nanny during her final days. I was six years old. She knew I’d had a haircut without being told and I thought she was magic. She was seeing things that we couldn’t see in her hospital room the closer she got to the other side. It wasn’t until a few years later I was told that Nanny had refused treatment for her cancer. At the time of learning that, Nanny’s decision seemed absurd but now, having been told more information about her life and what was done to her, this decision makes sense.  

Colonialism and white supremacy have rendered Black and Indigenous bodies disposable and lacking in agency: Terra Nullius. Our bodies, in death, were and still are not seen as ours – we were free or cheap labour, sexual property, a specimen for experimentation and/or control by the medical industry. Throughout the so-called ‘Western world’, Black and Indigenous bodies have borne the brunt of medical advancement.

There are famous global examples of this exploitation. In 1951 Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was a 30 year old tobacco farmer living near Baltimore. After her diagnosis she was treated with radiation therapy. During her radiation therapy, while she was unconscious, her treating physician cut two pieces of her cervical tissue before her treatment began. Henrietta was not informed that this would be happening. Her cancer cells were special – they not only survived in laboratories but the cells divided. They were dubbed immortal cells. Cells that survive and grow in the lab are important to scientists because it enables experimentation that can’t be done on human bodies. Her cells have been used by scientists all over the world in experiments ranging from the development of the polio vaccine, leukemia studies and different cancers including HPV, and viruses including mumps, measles, HIV and many more. They’ve been used to study the effects of nuclear bombs, have been launched into space to understand the impact of zero gravity of humans. The cells were used last year in coronavirus research. 

In 1932 the Tuskegee Study began, studying syphilis. The 600 people who were subjects of the study were all Black men, 399 of which had syphilis and 201 who didn’t. Like Henrietta Lacks, these men did not give informed consent. The men were told they were being treated for “bad blood”. They were not provided with treatment for syphilis, this was not an accident of the study, it was the point of the study. Penicillin became widely available as the preferred treatment of infections such as syphilis but was not offered to the men. This study continued for 40 years until it was reported on in July 1972. At least 128 died from issues related to syphilis by the time it was reported in 1972. This is made crueler by the fact that at the time researchers thought syphilis was more painful for Black people. They were also told the study would last for just six months. 

The Canadian federal government has been sued by Indigenous peoples across six different residential schools who were being malnourished by researchers and denied treatment in case it skewed the results. Neither the parents of these children or the children themselves were aware that they were subject to this. One school was giving children experimental drugs which left nine children with significant hearing loss. Researchers also used reservations as testing subjects providing some of the population with supplements and withholding form the rest of the population to see the results. 

Our bodies also bore cruelty in the name of science. The University of Adelaide conducted experiments on Aboriginal people through forced blood samples, experiments on feelings of pain and body measurements.  This research formed part of the construction of race in Australia that was used to justify the government’s attempts to breed us out. 

During the late 1800’s until the 1970s different sites around the country and on islands close to the mainland were turned into places for people with leprosy as well as facilities called Lock Hospitals. Police rounded up people they suspected of having venereal diseases, often placed in chains and were placed in facilities where they were not able to contact their family, and were given experimental drugs. Many died in the hospitals while many weren’t sick  This wouldn’t have come to light were it not for the advocacy of the descendents of people put in Lock Hospitals such as Aunty Kathleen Musulin and researchers such as Melissa Sweet.  This medical incarceration is an example of the long history police and the health industry have colluded to criminalise us and deny us appropriate care, and the foundations for carceral responses to health issues. 

It is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of all the ways our bodies have been used and discarded by the medical industrial complex without our consent. Our distrust of the healthcare system is justified and it is no surprise that many of us are skeptical of the medical industry. I have seen many Blackfullas in my social media feeds and had yarns with family who are particularly skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccination. A history of cruelty and control of our bodies and contemporary racism manifesting in denial of treatment, problematisation and criminalisation has made us justifiably apprehensive of the healthcare system. 

Since the beginning of this pandemic I have seen particular conspiracies roll out in regards to the pandemic. Many of the conspiracies have been formulated by white supremacists. Initially it was that the pandemic wasn’t real or that it “wasn’t that bad” and has since morphed into anti-vaccination hysteria. I understand the hesitancy from blackfullas – on what grounds are we expected to trust the government? When have they ever acted in our best interests? 

Despite all this, I got the vaccine. The colonial project places us in an ethical dilemma where it shortens our life span and provides treatments that have come at the expense of Indigenous and Black bodies. Dorothy Roberts makes the argument in Killing the Black Body that while the origins of birth control in the US was pushed in black communities with eugenic intentions doesn’t mean black communities shouldn’t access birth control now if they want to. 

Similarly, knowing the history of the ways our bodies have been abused and used, I know that still, the vaccine is the best way I can keep my family and community safe. To reject this free vaccine feels like wasting a privilege and an affront to my ancestors who died from immunisable illnesses. It also feels like a slap in the face to all of our mob breaking their backs in the health sector treating our sick and working to keep us safe. 

So much is uncertain but what I do know is: I am surrounded by people who would become very sick and possibly die if they got COVID19 and I’m not sure how I would live carrying that guilt. I also trust our community health services who are trying their best to keep us alive and well in a hostile colony. 

I wrote to a friend a few weeks ago who was watching Covid19 sweep its way across her Gomeroi country. I wrote that the way our community cares for each other is our greatest strength right now. Where white culture leaves their most vulnerable behind, it is in our cultures to protect each other to ensure our survival. Right now, with the information we have,  we are all we have to keep each other safe.  

 

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