The vaccine is coming.
A crucial defense against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — one we’ve been dreaming about for months at this point — appears close to fruition. The U.K. has authorized a rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the coming days, becoming the first Western nation to do so. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that enough doses for 170,000 people will be delivered to the state by December 15th, with an additional 170,000 to follow three weeks later; in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised enough for 163,000 people by mid-December. And the New York Times has a widget that guesses your spot in the line for a shot, based on age, employment and COVID-related health risks. Some 7.9 million people in Los Angeles County are ahead of me.
Also, probably… these guys.
Since this next phase of containment is likely to be as mismanaged and haphazard as our stay-at-home orders and overall guidance has been throughout 2020, you could be waiting for the vaccine quite a while after those at the front of the line receive it. To fast-track doses for hospital staff and essential workers, as well as the elderly and immunocompromised, makes perfect sense: You should protect those at significant risk, or who are most crucial to the stability of the nation at this moment. But imagine all the other ways that rich, powerful and connected people will get early access, without clear need for cutting ahead.
How important is it that George W. Bush, retired and living comfortably on his ranch in Central Texas, is among the initial recipients? Not at all, when you consider the negligible impact that televising this procedure will have on a population already besotted with junk science and misinformation.
And while up to half of Americans will decline a vaccine for one reason or another — from justified suspicion of its speedy development and potential side effects to conspiracy theories of Bill Gates’ “microchips” and the New World Order — the rest are bound to feel relief when they obtain their medicine. Relief that will turn to pride, and maybe even arrogance. I’m now immune, and I did what’s best for everyone! Guarantee we’re going to see vaccine selfies with the same energy of “I Voted” sticker pics. Judging by the current trend of celebrities and wealthy socialites preemptively defending their big parties and group vacations with assurances that all present went through quarantine and multiple rounds of testing, we’re also in for a round of post-vaccine flexing: I got mine, so I can return to life as normal, even if you plebs can’t. Sucks to be sick!
Better health outcomes, as the virus has brutally proven, are the mark of privilege in this country, and our individual paths to the vaccine will be no exception. Structural inequality means this plague has ravaged poorer, less-white regions, while the ruling class has the means to isolate and closely track symptoms; food lines stretch for miles as the manifold economic disasters plunge many into housing precarity and hunger, both carrying fatal dangers. The elite also have mental health resources out of reach for millions of the depressed, addicted and suicidal.
To get the vaccine early will be to affirm, once again, your higher status. Maybe you’ll even note how “lucky” you are, or how you wish it were this easy for anyone to secure treatment. But you’ll still be telegraphing that you deserved or somehow earned the advantage. And once you’ve publicly removed the stigma of possible contagion, you’ll be schmoozing, traveling, maskless, guilt-free and clean.
There could be real value in respected or well-known figures promoting vaccination — Elvis Presley famously got a polio shot as part of a campaign to encourage skeptical Americans to do the same — yet the greater share of the upper crust looking to be immunized before the rest of us are anonymous in their luxury, the hidden financiers and executives whose concierge doctors give them whatever they want as a matter of course. They pay handsomely for the cutting-edge therapies and procedures that haven’t entered mainstream medicine. It is not so far-fetched to suppose that among the wildly affluent, one could lose face for failing to procure their vaccine in a timely manner — and that whoever wins the race would be deemed all the more impressive.
How to eliminate this secondary, rarefied market is a long-term and depressingly familiar problem: the forces of capitalism versus the greater collective benefit. Until we can fairly administer health care across demographics and regardless of ability to pay, surviving the system is not only a personal success, it’s a basis for bragging. Hey, if you dodged the ‘rona, it must’ve been because you did everything right. Nothing to do with your inherited priority and disinvestment in marginalized communities, that’s for sure. Enjoy the rest of your blessed years, and don’t forget to tell the world when you take the needle. We’re dying to see what it’s like.