Robert Azzi: The challenge of vaccination in America, 1721-2021

For the Monitor
Published: 2/21/2021 6:00:15 AM

For months, as COVID-19 spread virtually unchallenged across the American prospect – death count inexorably climbing toward 500,000 even as the crisis was being denied – one aspect of the national conversation taking place, at least in fora I followed, was of personal interest.

Often, many of the participants were either foreign-born or first-generation Americans – many from countries from which the administration was trying to eliminate or limit immigration.

They were the Other, inheritors of a noble promise.

I was attentive as I noticed that people from “shithole countries” and people branded rapist, terrorist, and undesirable were increasingly present in the battle to conquer the novel coronavirus.

They were Mexican, Moroccan, Algerian, Armenian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Palestinian, South African, Chinese, Venezuelan, Cuban, and other.

Many – native speakers of Hindi and Malayalam, Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Creole, Tagalog, Tamil, Korean, Yoruba, and Mandarin but equally fluent in science – spent their waking hours not only trying to find therapies and vaccine but trying to convince Americans to keep their distance, wash their hands, and mask up.

I was attentive as I noticed some were members of communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, some were descendants of Native American communities which suffered catastrophic death tolls because of smallpox, many were descendants of enslaved peoples.

They were the Other: descendants, I believe, of Onesimus of Salem, Mass.

In 1706, Cotton Mather, a Puritan church minister in Boston – best known to historians and most Americans for his incendiary role in the Salem Witch Trials – received a present from his congregation: They gifted him an enslaved person.

A church bought a preacher of the Word a human being.

Onesimus, an African, perhaps from Ghana, was an enslaved person whose knowledge of inoculation was instrumental in saving thousands of lives in 18th-century New England.

Mather described, in 1716, how Onesimus described a method of smallpox inoculation that “whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.”

Later, in 1721, despite opposition, Mather used Onesimus’s experience to advocate for mass inoculation when an epidemic struck Boston. Harvard’s Divinity School rejected him because “only sinners got smallpox,” and Harvard’s Medical School was opposed because it wasn’t “Western” medicine. Finally, Mather convinced Dr, Zabdiel Boylston to test his thesis, following Onesimus’s description – which involved sticking a needle into a pustule from an infected person’s body and scraping the infected needle across a healthy person’s skin.

Boylston first inoculated his 6-year-old son and two of his slaves, then inoculated 280 others during the 1721 epidemic.

Of those 280 inoculated only six died (2.2%) while there were 844 deaths among the 5,889 non-inoculated patients (14.3%) studied.

Finally, after repeated attempts to convert Onesimus, a Muslim, to Christianity did Mather allow Onesimus to buy his freedom, cruelly conditioning his release so that even while free he remain available to “shovel snow, pile firewood, fetch water and carry corn to the mill.”

Mather, to the very end, failed to acknowledge the humanity of the man who over time saved thousands in Boston.

Last week, 300 years after the first inoculations in Boston, I was vaccinated in a parking lot in Dover with the Moderna vaccine.

It was a painless process. From arrival to departure I was there for 55 minutes, moving slowly in procession with dozens of other cars through to the actual vaccination station – and then waiting in a parking space for 15 minutes to make sure I had no anaphylactic reaction.

I never got out of my car – and I got a date for my second shot!

I’m told that after receiving the second shot – the same 0.5 mL dosage – I may have a more extreme reaction, with perhaps 24 hours of what may appear to be COVID-19 symptoms but which are, in reality, the first shot countering the second shot: proof that the vaccine is working!

Inoculation / variolation / vaccination – originated possibly in 8th-century India or 10th-century China - spread throughout Asia reaching Africa and the Ottoman empire by the 17th century, then to the West, then to the C&J parking lot in Dover where I waited in line to be Moderna-ized!

Moderna’s vaccine was produced by a pharmaceutical company co-founded and chaired by Beirut-born Noubar Afeyan, a Lebanese-Armenian.

Pfizer’s vaccine is the result of collaboration between Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech – founded by Turkish-Germans Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Together they began work on the vaccine after Sahin read an article in The Lancet that convinced him that the coronavirus, at the time spreading in China, would become a global pandemic.

Since then Sahin has developed a friendship with Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla, who is Greek and whose parents were Sephardic survivors of the Holocaust, which nearly eradicated the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, Greece. The two have bonded over their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants whose own native countries are often in conflict.

Domestically – as the hunt for a vaccine intensified – the president picked a Moroccan-American Muslim, Moncef Slaoui, an immunologist who formerly headed vaccine development at GlaxoSmithKline and who served on Moderna’s board, to head Operation Warp Speed.

We’re dependent upon a health care system heavily reliant on foreign-born individuals. At least 30% of physicians are foreign-born; almost 7% aren’t citizens. Roughly 25% of dentists – including mine – 16% of registered nurses and more than 25% of home health, psychiatric, and nursing aides are either immigrants or foreign-born – including DACA individuals.

That’s the reality of who we are – and we are blessed because of it!

Today, if it appears we’re closer to fulfilling Theophilus Parsons’s aspiration – that America was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians” – it is because, I believe, we’re a nation designed, from the beginning, to embrace, make room for, and protect the Other.

That’s what we are called to do. That’s who we are.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at


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