To me, it’s simple.
If you, like me, are not medically compromised and have been working from home over the past year while drawing your full salary, you have two options.
You can sit patiently until some institution calls you to get vaccinated.
Or, you can proactively organize with other people to make sure your government is distributing vaccines equitably to people who need them the most, especially those who don’t have many advocates—such as the millions of people who are living in congregate care settings, in prisons, or tent cities in the U.S., and the billions of people living in poor countries around the world.
But if you, like me, have been working from home and drawing your full salary in the pandemic, you cannot be trying to game the internet to get vaccinated before the (disproportionately Black and brown) postal carriers, hospital orderlies, cooks, food delivery people, Amazon package drivers, bus drivers, nurses, day care workers, doctors, grocery store shelf stockers, order fulfilment warehouse specialists, cashiers, people who’ve lost their jobs at your workplace while you’ve kept yours, people who never had a job or a home while you had both—and anyone else you may have banged a pot for at sunset in the early days of COVID.
In other words, if you’ve been working from home, you can’t ethically be line-jumping ahead of the very people who made it possible for you to work from home, at great personal risk.
At some level, “Prioritization vs speed is a false choice that ignores that we’re expecting to transition from vaccine scarcity to abundance over the course of the year (in the US, very different scenarios in different countries, some have abundance now, others have nothing w/ no end in sight),” as Lindsay Wiley, the director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University Washington College of Law, wrote on Twitter. But those of us who have enjoyed the considerable prophylactic protection of working from home need to allow the prophylactic protection of a vaccine to first go to those who did not get to work from home—and especially for those who don’t work in traditional jobs because they are disabled, unhoused, elderly or locked up.
As Wiley wrote, “Prioritization is critical to reducing hospitalizations & deaths ASAP. The difference b/w getting vaxxed today vs. summer is massive for, eg, people w/ high-risk conditions whose work/family members’ work is high exposure. The rest of us can/should wait a few more months.”
In my own circles, my frustration has been less with people trying to get vaccines because they can (and before those vaccines expire and go to waste, which is an understandable position). My anger more is at the United States government (and the corporate forces that own it), which have created a neoliberal free-for-all in vaccine distribution. This has largely instructed people in most states that they have to find the government to get vaccinated instead of the government coming to them.
It is unconscionable that a pandemic that is slaughtering people who are elderly, severely disabled, experiencing homelessness and/or incarcerated also requires them to come to the government by way of internet sign-up, QR codes and even two-factor cell-phone authentication.
This is an ableist trap. How can the government expect people who are illiterate, computer-illiterate, living on the streets and/or perhaps unable to use a computer because of their advanced age supposed to navigate such hoops?
In matters of law and war, the government is willing to come to us. When I turned 18, the U.S. government found me and told me (under threat of prosecution) to sign up for the Selective Service, so that I could be drafted in the event of a war. If any of us do not pay our taxes, you can be sure the U.S. government will find us, garnishing our wages if necessary—and if we break the law, police from our local government will arrest many of us quite quickly.
Yet when it comes to voting or vaccination, the government makes us go to it—and with votes and vaccines both, that decision generates predictably racist and ableist disparities.
There needs to be less collective thinking along the line of “I better get mine” and more proactive collective planning to make sure people who need vaccines the most desperately are getting them. Also, we need to interrogate how “I just showed up and got one before it expired” isn’t an option for many who can’t “just show up” (e.g., people who are immunocompromised or are literally locked up in congregate living facilities or prisons). As my friend, the epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, wrote in the Atlantic: “In the United States, we have far too much practice in ignoring the ethical dilemmas staring us in the face.”
As it has been for a year, COVID is an opportunity to rethink our deepest ethical assumptions.
I work primarily in two domains: as a journalist, among people who tell stories of the society, and as a professor of media and LGBTQ health, among a lot of people who study infectious diseases. My fellow journalists are narrating the vaccine story too much as a story of tech; but, to be fair, this has largely been because our federal and state governments have ceded the rollout to neoliberal tech patches largely run by private entities, and not enacted the robust state approach that has been successful with past vaccination campaigns (without the aid of computers, let alone the internet.).
When 330,000,000 people are all left to scramble for a vaccine through private tech platforms, all the inequities of tech exacerbate existing disparities to create an ever-more distinct viral divide between who is being harmed by SARS-CoV-2 and who isn’t. A vaccine is a technology itself, and as I wrote in December, absent an actively antiracist, anticapitalist approach, vaccines are likely to exacerbate existing disparities, as medical interventions alone have before.
But access to the vaccine rollout itself is also technical in nature—and, as it’s always been whenever it’s trotted out as a panacea to address social injustice, tech has been an abysmal failure here.
Mastering tech has given an unfair advantage not to those who are most vulnerable, but to those with the skills (or the grandchildren with the skills) most suited to using an app. Mastering tech has let white New Yorkers go to the heavily Latin neighborhood of Washington Heights—whose residents were very hard hit by COVID—to get shots, as though they’re trawling for tacos they read about in Time Out. Tech is being used to encourage Americans to travel to other countries to get vaccinated, even when the people living there have not been. The allure of tech led the city of Philadelphia to largely turn over vaccination distribution to a start-up with a 22-year-old CEO, with predictably disastrous results.
Such a disaster was made possible, in part, by journalists who’ve irresponsibly written up start-up CEOs for years as mythic heroes who can solve complex social problems with their technical “disruptions.”
On the academic side of my life, I have noticed that by far, the largest group of people I see getting vaccinated in my social media feeds are other professors who are also working from home. This is somewhat expected, given whom I know. But they—or rather, I should say we—are highly educated people adept at navigating complex technical systems. People like us have kept our jobs even as custodians and food workers on our campuses have lost theirs. A recent map of Chicago, where I work (at least I did when campus life was a thing) that tracks who is dying of COVID and who is getting vaccinated against it alarmingly showed almost inverse populations.
Chicago is currently reporting 32,438 people fully vaccinated: 1.2% of the population— ChiVaxBot (@ChiVaxBot) January 26, 2021
Who is dying: Who is vaccinated: pic.twitter.com/5h3licN7F9
All of this makes me afraid that, because the rules have been catered to us, those of us least likely to get COVID are the most likely to get vaccinations first (and to even feel like we deserve it because we figured it out), when we should be getting them last because we’ve had other forms of protection.
Of course, there are professors (and other people who’ve been working from home) who have compromised immune systems or live with people who are working in public-facing jobs who need vaccines ASAP. But I’ve also heard professors justifying their desire for vaccines because they have conferences planned they want to get to in 2021.
Listen, I love an academic conference as much as the next person. (Actually, that’s a bald-faced lie—I hate them, always have, and perhaps the one good thing about the pandemic has been that it’s forced the more democratized sharing of academic knowledge on the internet, keeping it from being hoarded by those who can afford to share it with four other people and 396 empty chairs in a Marriott conference room that could easily seat 400.) But “getting back to normal” is no reason for us to rush to the front of the line—especially when there are K-12 educators who have been doing face-to-face work, as well as truly essential college educators, such as cooks and dorm maintenance workers.
And those who have lost jobs at our very institutions need vaccines the most. Now that they are more likely to be living with other essential workers, facing eviction (which is its own COVID driver) or both, they need more—not less—organized protection when they are not formally attached to an institution.
And who will advocate for them?
If you have the time and technical ability to spend 12 hours online trying to get a shot for yourself while working from home, you can spend 12 hours organizing with others to make sure those most vulnerable can get theirs first or—even better—organizing to force the Joe “I believe in science” Biden’s administration to make the government come to us, so that professionals are paid to schedule all of us and find and us and so that no one has to spend 12 hours trying to get an appointment.
As Lindsay Wiley wrote, a “better approach” during this time “when doses are scarce is to scale up mobile efforts to send doses (& jabbers) directly to hot-spot workplaces & residences & vax everyone on-site who’s willing. That’s what the federal nursing home program was supposed to do, but it lacked funding & oversight.” In its wake, a “survival of the fittest” mentality has taken over, as people with means scramble individually online, with systems that encourage people to treat appointments like they’re vying for Beyoncé tickets on StubHub. Meanwhile, there has been a fantastic success story in West Virginia, premised with a very different model. Despite being named at times the poorest state in the nation, West Virginia has had the best vaccine rollout.
The state achieved this not through a neoliberal free for all, but because it was the only state to shun the outsourcing of nursing home vaccination to CVS and Walgreens. Instead, the state used local health departments and small pharmacies with ties to communities. As Wiley noted, “WV nursing home program (they opted out of the fed disaster) provides a model for scaling up mobile vax teams to target scarce doses. Local health departments play matchmaker between employers/housing authorities/etc and pharmacy teams and provide financing, logistics and oversight.”
“Vaccinations and medicine should be distributed equitably, but the neediest are seldom at the front of the line,” as Gonsalves' Atlantic piece noted. Indeed, as disability activist and author Alice Wong has been writing, California’s “switch to an age-based vaccination plan” that greatly widened who is trying to get it also “de-prioritizes high-risk people under 65” like her, which is leaving disabled people more vulnerable. If there were less austerity in production and more abundance and even anarchy (horizontal planning about how we can collectively protect one another through mutual aid) with vaccination, 330 million people wouldn’t need to be pitted against each other.
Hopefully the Biden administration will ramp up production as promised, and patents will not be used as an excuse not to be manufacturing vaccines en masse around the world for all earthlings. In the meantime, those of us who have been working from home and are not especially vulnerable need not be passive about people who really need them. As the Washington Post reported, only one of the world’s poorest 29 countries has gotten any COVID vaccine; meanwhile, young Americans working from home are trying to get vaccines to go to conferences and Burning Man!
As Gonsalves reminded me, South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat risked his own life and famously refused to take HIV meds until everyone who needed them had access.
Everyone doesn’t need to be so extreme. But we needn’t be passive about accepting an “I got mine” mentality when billions might go without, either—and if those with means don’t demand access for those who don’t, the viral underclass will only grow larger.
Still, if you really want to be passive as someone who works from home about everything, that can be as simple as letting someone else who might need a vaccine more go first—and quietly waiting around.