Institutional Distrust among African Americans and Building Trustworthiness in the COVID-19 Response: Implications for Ethical Public Health Practice

J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2021;32(1):90-98. doi: 10.1353/hpu.2021.0010.


African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19-related disease and mortality due to long-standing social, political, economic, and environmental injustice; and COVID-19 inequities are exacerbated by institutional distrust. In the absence of trust, public health authorities have not adequately fulfilled their professional and ethical obligations to protect African American communities from the negative effects of COVID-19. As institutional distrust is shaped by individual and collective experiences of untrustworthiness, we propose a paradigm shift from increasing trust among African Americans to increasing trustworthiness among medical and public health institutions/systems throughout the United States. This narrative review extends the literature describing how social determinants contribute to COVID-19 inequities by demonstrating how institutional distrust develops over time and is reinforced through systems of injustice. Additionally, we illustrate consequences of institutional distrust for COVID-19 inequities and provide recommendations for building trustworthiness through ethical public health practice.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health / ethnology*
  • Black or African American / psychology*
  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Public Health Practice* / ethics
  • Social Determinants of Health
  • Trust*
  • United States