The systemic factors behind individual guilt in vaccination rollouts

Courtesy of Christian Emmer via San Francisco Public Press.

In the midst of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out, the ethical implications of getting vaccinated—especially for people who are eligible for non-health related reasons—have become more complicated. Somehow, despite the federal government’s unquestionably incompetent and devastating handling of the pandemic, American individuals are the ones to face a moral burden in the vaccination process. Gaining access to vaccines is more of an emotionally tricky situation than eligible people expected—healthy, younger educators might feel as if they’re taking an older, more at-risk person’s shot, and increasing public knowledge about stark inequalities in the U.S. healthcare system introduces another level of vaccine guilt. Sadly but unsurprisingly, given the inherently racist nature of American institutions, the racial disparity in vaccination numbers is already quite noticeable, even in the early stages of vaccine roll outs. A lack of information about the rapidly produced vaccines as well as existing anti-vax attitudes have led some Americans to view it with suspicion, deterring them from getting a shot. On top of this, some privileged Americans are finding loopholes in the system and gaining access to earlier vaccinations; the healthcare system is practically set up to provide priority treatment to wealthy, connected people without much difficulty. All of these complications—vaccine guilt, distrust of the vaccine, and obvious inequalities in the vaccination process—speak to a larger issue that won’t go away after the need for vaccines isn’t as dire. 

While producers of COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna are currently offering reduced prices due largely to public pressure, the pharmaceutical industry is notorious for upcharging and essentially denying people without sufficient funds the right to live comfortably, or at all. Not to mention the rest of the American healthcare system—it should come as no surprise that all of our privatized institutions work to exploit and profit off of marginalized communities. Individual responsibility within this deliberately broken system isn’t just irrelevant; it doesn’t exist. How are we supposed to act “unproblematically” within a set of rules that has already decided the unequal end result? Of course high-risk groups should get earlier access to the COVID-19 vaccine. But the ensuing state-ordained categorization of who deserves it next is bound to get somewhat morally vague. Within the broad, convoluted strokes of this process, I’d encourage people who might feel guilty about getting the vaccine to remember the bigger picture. 

The American vaccination process has proven to be somewhat of a makeshift situation, which makes sense given the rush to produce vaccines, the subsequent shortages and the all too familiar mess of state-by-state COVID regulations. These shortcomings, on top of the unthinkable amount of pain the federal mishandling of the virus has caused, further weaken the American public’s already iffy faith in the vaccination process. Additionally, it makes sense that some groups would already be skeptical about getting vaccinated. Due to a long history of medical injustice and negligence, some people of color rightfully distrust the American healthcare system. With all these factors in mind, I think there should be a stronger effort to provide more information about the vaccine to people who might be inclined to be suspicious of it. Instead of demonizing those who are skeptical, let’s consider the sources of these misgivings. And while it’s normal to feel guilty about getting vaccinated earlier than most, I’d still argue that the more people who get vaccinated the better. However, we shouldn’t feel too helpless. There are definitely actions we can take to make it easier for eligible people to get vaccinated! A great way to get involved is through the new vaccine hotline created by people in the Vassar community to help Poughkeepsie residents who are having trouble registering for their shots. Because of the general disorder and uncertainty of the federal roll out process, the social responsibility falls upon Americans to facilitate and support collective community action. Just keep in mind the systemic factors in the unequal vaccine distribution. The blame is on these larger institutional structures, not on American individuals. 

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