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Opinion | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Should N.B.A. Players Jump the Vaccine Line?

Among the groups that are reluctant to be vaccinated: African-Americans and adults under age 35. Other groups have increasingly embraced the idea of being vaccinated. Those 65 or older willing to get the shots increased to 87 percent in January from 60 percent in October, those 50 to 64 are up to 69 percent from 48 percent, and those 35 to 49 rose to 58 percent from 48 percent. However, those under 35 have stayed level at 55 percent, and only 62 percent of African-American adults said they are willing to get a vaccination.

The Black community has some valid reasons to be skeptical, especially of a federal government program. A 2005 National Academy of Medicine report concluded that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people — even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.” It found that systemic racism, not poverty, led to Black people from across the economic spectrum receiving less appropriate care for cardiac issues, kidney dialysis and transplants, and not receiving the best treatments for stroke, cancer and AIDS. Plus, the Black community has not forgotten the Tuskegee study of Black men with syphilis, in which the doctors secretly did not treat the infected, or the forced sterilization of thousands of Native American women; both programs were active into the 1970s. Black people have reason to distrust the federal government’s response to Covid-19 specifically: The Trump administration lied about the severity of the pandemic even as it was killing Black people at a significantly higher rate than white people.

Add to that the recent full-court press by Republicans to suppress voting by Black people, the numerous killings of unarmed Black people by police, and elected officials’ encouragement of white supremacists to invade our Capitol. All this has left Black people feeling neglected and attacked, and not in a trusting mood of institutions, including the medical profession and government agencies. Reed Tuckson, a co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, said it’s important that those “who have been carrying the message have been trusted intermediaries.” Further harming the effort is the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan telling African-Americans that the vaccines are poisons designed by white people to rid the world of Black people. That is why we can waste no time promoting legitimate role models. This is where N.B.A. players come in.

In 1956, Elvis Presley received his polio vaccine on television, launching a highly effective vaccination campaign that by 1960 had reduced annual occurrences of polio by 90 percent. Health policy professionals suggest that public health campaigns using celebrities should focus on celebrities who are influential in particular communities in order to build trust. N.B.A. players, 81.1 percent of whom are Black, appeal to the under-35 and African-American demographics. LeBron James, whom Forbes called “America’s Most Popular Athlete,” has 72.6 million Instagram followers, and Steph Curry has 30.4 million (compared with Tom Brady’s 8.2 million), so when they and other influential N.B.A. athletes publicly get their shots, they will contribute to convincing Black and under-35 skeptics that the vaccines are safe and necessary. Other role models might be necessary to reach other populations that are reluctant to get vaccinated, like those in rural areas of the country.

Of course, I would like to see the N.B.A. season in full swing, with all the players safely inoculated, but not at the expense of those whose lives are in immediate danger. The exception: those receiving the shots as part of a sustained campaign to bring vaccination awareness to communities most in need of persuasion. Public celebrity inoculation is a proven and reasonable step in moving the nation toward herd immunity, opening businesses, and finally hugging our loved ones.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an author, a screenwriter, an activist, a six-time N.B.A. most valuable player, the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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