A Disproportionate Distribution

Status and wealth may be playing a dangerously large roll in COVID-19 vaccine distribution around the world.

The+COVID-19+vaccine+should+help+the+most+vulnerable+first%2C+no+matter+their+political+status%2C+income+or+nationality.

illustration by Kristen Kinzler

The COVID-19 vaccine should help the most vulnerable first, no matter their political status, income or nationality.

As someone who nearly cries almost every time she has to get a shot, I never thought I would be so excited to get a needle jabbed into my arm. But weird times call for weird expectations, so, like most Americans, I’m putting all of my hopes for a somewhat normal future in the coronavirus vaccine.

The United States has currently given about 4.2 million people the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The very first dose in the country went to a nurse in New York City. Although I was initially excited to witness the historic event, the following weeks just made me feel disappointed.

While healthcare workers and people in long-term care facilities were receiving the vaccine, so were politicians. Congressional leaders were some of the first Americans to be vaccinated. They cut the line for no other reason other than their position. To make matters worse, several of the officials, including Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, downplayed and lied about the virus. They misled the people they claim to represent but protected themselves from COVID-19 as soon as they could.

I understand that the president and vice-president should be vaccinated simply for the stability of the country. When Donald Trump got COVID in October, it threatened America’s place on the world stage. So, even though Mike Pence practically ignored the virus’s existence for the past six months, it makes sense that he received the vaccine in December.

It’s also logical that officials in the line of presidential succession get vaccinated. But vaccinating any elected officer beyond that is irresponsible and immoral. Mitch McConnell, who refused to even hold a vote on an economic proposal that would help Americans through the public health crisis, should not have gotten vaccinated before every single doctor, nurse, and great-grandma did.

The vaccine distribution is reinforcing the same system that has always placed public figures and wealthy individuals on pedestals.”

Anyone, including myself, who expected government officials not to prioritize themselves when the vaccine became available was hopelessly naive. We all knew this would most likely happen. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating, and it doesn’t mean that we should just ignore the injustice of it.

Other factors other than job position are likely to skew the vaccine distribution in the coming months. Soon enough, wealth may play a dangerously large role in who gets the vaccine first.

In India, the vaccine will be available for private purchase, and the Australian government is also allowing pharmaceutical companies to privately sell the vaccine, citing the fact that the country is a “free market economy.”

This method of distribution is extremely reckless. It places economic status above need, and it alienates people who are struggling financially.

While Pfizer, one of the primary vaccine distributors in the United States, says that they have no plans to sell the doses to the private sector, some big corporations are preparing just in case. The National Hockey League announced last month that, given the opportunity, it plans to privately purchase enough doses to vaccinate all of its players. 

Giving professional athletes any kind of vaccine priority is just as laughable as giving it to Congressional members. The idea is especially problematic because, in America, low-income and minority households have been hit hardest by COVID-19. And if politicians and big businesses had their way, those truly vulnerable communities would be the last to be vaccinated.

There is an even larger disparity regarding vaccinations on a world scale. Globally, 12.1 billion vaccine doses have been purchased or reserved, but not a single sub-Saharan African country has negotiated a deal to purchase the vaccine. Ironically, in a few months, millions of doses of vaccine will be produced in South Africa, but they will all be shipped out to Western countries.

Kristen Kinzler

The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the vaccine will become widely available in the United States and Europe between September of this year and March of 2022.

Yet, poorer countries, mostly in Africa, aren’t expected to see mass vaccinations until mid 2022 to 2023.

It may be hard to complain about those timelines, considering that the United States has one of the most optimistic projections. But when it comes to public health, we have to think about everyone else, too. We’re all of the same human family regardless of our nationality, so we should have some compassion.  Eight countries in Africa have recently recorded their highest daily case counts since the start of the pandemic, and the New York Times recently found evidence that the continent’s case counts were incomplete.

The coronavirus isn’t going to be gone until cases are down globally, so we should be concerned with other countries’ potential outbreaks as well.

COVID vaccinations depend heavily on a country’s wealth. (photo courtesy of the Economist)

I recognize that the arrival of the vaccine is good news, and its mere existence in such a short period of time is incredible. However, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is how broken and divided the wealth distribution in our country and around the world is. 

We weren’t all in this together, simply because we couldn’t be. Our experiences varied based on our situations. A wealthy politician experienced the coronavirus very differently from someone who relied on a minimum wage job to pay their rent.

The pandemic highlighted inequalities that persist today, and instead of fixing them, the vaccine distribution is reinforcing the same system that has always placed public figures and wealthy individuals on pedestals.

If we can ever hope for real, meaningful change, we need to recognize where our governments are falling short and hold them accountable. That most likely involves media literacy and good journalism, and, perhaps most importantly, a strong moral compass. We need to be able to see what’s going on around the world and realize when it’s wrong. We need to be able to sympathize with other human beings and be outraged when they are treated unfairly. We need to care.