Virginia Heffernan, Tribune News Service
Its become a set piece in certain precincts of social media: complaints that people are getting vaccinated under false pretenses.
In a recent issue of Airmail, the posh online magazine, one writer reported that a “fresh-faced” assistant at her hair salon had recently urged her to get the COVID-19 vax as he had, though he wasn’t “technically” eligible.
“It’s kind of like being pressured to take drugs,” Ashley Baker wrote. She further cited a friend who had landed a shot by citing her childhood asthma as a comorbidity. Baker wasn’t convinced. She saw entitlement and the itch to party.
Admittedly, it makes some sense to begrudge people who seem to be malingering to jump the line. Especially when they’re crowing about it on Instagram. This one can’t have a BMI over 18. And oh, come on, “migraines” — those have to be garden-variety headaches.
The resentment is understandable. Over the last bruising year, we’ve grown accustomed to supply shortages and grinding competition for resources. Shelves were bare of canned goods, toilet paper, even yeast. And forget about N95 masks.
It seemed we had gone full Hunger Games. Often the hunger was literal. In 2019, 1 in 9 Americans suffered from food insecurity; in 2020, according to Feeding America, a domestic hunger-relief organisation, the number rose to 1 in 7. The most vulnerable among us, especially, have been through what feels like an eternity of sickness, deprivation, hunger and death.
Scarcity was everywhere. For months, just getting a test was a trial. If you showed symptoms in California (and many other states), public health officials advised you to not even try, just assume you had the virus and quarantine. Surge by surge, states and cities were short on hospital beds, ventilators, dialysis and morgues.
This 2020-21 history requires retelling because it is easy to block out what we’ve endured. At the same time, circumstances have dramatically changed. It’s time also to take that in; otherwise, the perception of scarcity persists, keeping alive fear, tribalism, even spite.
So take it in: Masks, free COVID tests, hand sanitizer and hospital resources are now abundantly available. Supermarket shelves are stocked. And the Biden-Harris administration has even taken dramatic steps to reduce hunger. In California alone, some 4.245 million beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are seeing their benefits increase, on average, $28 per person, per month.
And then there’s the vaccine. As of March 19, 100 million vaccine shots had been administered across the country. On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a new goal: 200 million shots by April 30. In California, some 27% of people have received at least one dose, with nearly 400,000 shots administered a day. The massive effort to inoculate the nation is in full swing.
But our nervous systems are still catching up. Instead of pitching in, too many people are sitting on the sidelines, signaling virtue or scepticism, convinced it’s either selfish or risky to get shots.
Those who aren’t yet eligible must leave aside resentments of hair-salon assistants and those over 65 and preregister for the vaccine. After all, it’s slated to be accessible to all adults in just four weeks, and in California, at the beginning of April. As supply increases, officials in some locales fear the flip side of vaccine scarcity: surplus that could expire on the shelf.
The lag is big enough that, combined with the rise of variants, we may never achieve the goal of herd immunity, the inoculation of 60% to 70% of the population.
In February, according to a recent article in Nature, independent data scientist Youyang Gu relabeled his popular COVID-19 forecasting model. It was once called “Path to Herd Immunity”; now it’s “Path to Normality.” Normality sounds promising, but without herd immunity we will still be living with a deadly contagion.
The United States has no national health service. No state or federal organization is going to call you up for vaccination, as for military service or jury duty. It falls to individuals to determine their eligibility, make their way through red tape, secure a place in line, and fight traffic and life’s demands to get a shot. Or two.
And because vaccination for one is vaccination for all, instead of begrudging those who have gotten the shots, we should be supporting them.
For those who are vaccinated, or are waiting, take the chance to help others. Vaccine sites need volunteers, and lending a hand might mean you get vaccinated faster. At the very least, the able-bodied should reach out to family, friends and community members who lack the internet skills or mobility to get signed up and get their shots.
It’s been a vertiginous year. There’s bound to be leftover disorientation and panic. But the country has switched from an every-man-for-himself exercise to a nationwide barn-raising endeavour. This is not a vaccine war; no one is the enemy. The vaccine drive requires not recriminations but the active participation of all of us.
A year into the pandemic, infection rates are falling. Hospitals are quieter; morgues are emptier. Emboldened by vaccines, we’re dropping our masks and stepping closer. Slowly we’re reopening indoor dining, theaters, museums and schools.
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