The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans have a long history of waiting in line, but waiting for vaccinations feels different

People wait in a bread line during the early days of the Great Depression on New York’s Lower East Side. (AP)
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Perhaps you are still waiting in line for a vaccine, with a number that’s not yet been called. Whether you intended it this way or not, getting in line is the ultimate sign that you are human, and humans are many.

By now, around 121 million people in the United States have been at least partially vaccinated for the coronavirus. Wonderful. We simply love to see that. Others were disappointed to discover that the vaccination appointment they were counting on was canceled this week, as federal health officials called for a pause in distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In the land of the distanced and the home of the restless, millions more (and billions more, worldwide) are doing what humans across the centuries have always reluctantly agreed to do: Queue up. Wait.

(What would a flattened curve look like, again? Yes, a line.)

As the pandemic’s end seems to draw nearer still, that line is — like so much else — virtual. Those still waiting online have no idea where they are in line. It goes against everything we know about the essential ethics of waiting.

You may have slogged the arduous line to vote for president, or the line to have a coronavirus test swab probe deeply for your brain, or even the line to grab that last four-pack of paper towels at the store.

And you may even see mass vaccination sites at outposts such as sports stadiums and convention centers and amusement parks — but instead of joining the crowd in the sheer testament to stamina and stubbornness, you’re more likely staring at a screen, clicking blobs of future time and affirming or attesting your existence. We’ve waited for any sort of specific procedure in how we can get a shot, and while an orderliness did settle in, many are still relying on stray whisper networks, or hanging around at closing time of a pharmacy to possibly get on a list for soon-expiring doses, or joining Facebook groups filled with “vaccine hunters” offering their services ad hoc. The early prioritization of at-risk populations was (and is) good and righteous, we all agree.

Now what happens as we get to the murky rest of us?

Some people are lying to get vaccinated, and it’s testing their friendships

Lines should represent some sort of utopian ideal: First come, first served. Society has waited in line for pop culture and consumer craziness (think: Star Wars and iPhones) and on dutiful errands at banks and post offices and, that legendary time-suck, the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Black Friday hordes. The blocks-long lines to buy artisanal cupcakes. Or even some of our bygone lines — camping outside the Ticketmaster box office when Prince came to town.

Lines prey on the luxury of time and how much of it someone has versus another. In lines we discover that which already separates us. Lines stretch all the way from desire to desperate need: All those cars lined up at food banks during the pandemic shutdowns; all those lines in collective memory, signifying economic and social collapse.

During the Cold War, the frequent interminable lines at grocery stores seen in communist nations worked as a scare tactic for viewers and readers of American TV news: Just look at those miserable lines: “Soviet Food Shortages: Grumbling and Excuses” (that’s a headline from the New York Times, January 1982) and, then, a decade later, “In Russia, Long Lines for Plentiful Bread” (also the New York Times, January 1992).

University of Notre Dame sociologist David R. Gibson took a stab at describing these unspoken rules with his 2008 paper, “Doing Time in Space: Line Formation Rules and Resultant Morphologies.” Those in line become its keepers (and enforcers), while those new to hop in are, according to Gibson, “muddying the geometry and creating uncertainty as to what should happen next.”

“Further,” Gibson writes, “the normal rules for line formation can misfire, giving rise to mutant lines with multiple ‘tails’ and an impaired capacity for encoding time into space.”

This eroding ability to figure out a place in line magnifies as our physical queues are reimagined in the digital sphere. The tech-savvy among us flex the skills honed from itchy clicker fingers making months-in-advance dinner reservations or seizing a pair of the newest Jordans. Those unfamiliar with the stress of constant refreshing are left behind.

Robert Samuel, who has literally made the historical inefficiency of queuing his business, might be nearing the end of his line.

In December 2012, Samuel created Same Ole Line Dudes, a crew of professional line-sitters. Well-off and impatient New Yorkers used these services, pre-pandemic, to score seats on Broadway and the latest hoodie from Supreme. This sort of slight to our norms leads to sneers and protestations from those behind Samuel and his employees. “ ‘Oh, is that legal?’ Which was rather offensive, because all I was doing was standing in line,” Samuel says. “I turned to the girl quickly and I was like, ‘It’s not like I’m selling crack, sweetie, I’m just here in line.’ ”

For the past year, Samuel has scraped together a living from customers who pay him to line up for coronavirus tests, DMV appointments and even sent him to Paterson, N.J., when the town was offering no-appointment vaccinations in late January. His job was to wait and let them know of any late-breaking opportunities to get ahead.

For Samuel and the rest of us, the vaccine line is shaping the line of the future.

“[The DMV] proudly announced on their website: 80 to 90 percent of all transactions can be conducted online,” he says of the dwindling physical lines. “I mean it’s good in a way because that’s the way it should be. This is the future we’re living in. Things should be automated.”

The line itself as a culture replicates what many have felt in the past year — selfishly or not. There is solidarity in participating in this collective action, modeled after our supposed values: Wait for your turn, navigate the twisting social cues and all will be serviced according to their place — until there is the inevitable breakdown.

Can we hope to find the answer of our moral place in line at this crucial moment?

Laurie Zoloth, professor of religion and ethics at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, is a “long-term optimist but short-term pessimist” about the whole idea. Focusing on the bioethics of social justice and health-care issues, Zoloth marvels at how the line for vaccinations has functioned so far with its focus on prioritizing the at-risk and underserved as well as equitable (and universally free) distribution.

But this big picture gets muddled as soon as one notices the disparity between who’s getting vaccinated in the United States and who’s getting nowhere, something she’s seen in Chicago, with its own long history of segregating the neediest from the people who tend to land first place.

It comes down to who has the resources and access to find ways in (and around) the line. Zoloth points to allowing each state to create its own guidelines for who to vaccinate as causing “bad behavior” in lines. “People go 10 minutes across the state line to get a vaccination. The one federal system, the one federal criteria could have worked,” she says.

Zoloth’s observations get to the worry we all express now in polls and protests:

Is the United States still capable and willing of forming a decent, fair line?

“The deeper problem is that we did not do a great job in this pandemic,” Zoloth says of the hand-wringing over individual freedoms in the United States. “And if this was a dress rehearsal for climate change, we’re in big trouble. Because these collective-action problems require us to care about each other and to love each other and to understand that the life of your neighbor is deeply connected to your existence. And the death of your neighbor, you’re implicated in that death.”

And yet: “I do think that we’ll begin to have faith in one another. And faith in one another is going to be sort of important as faith in the vaccine. Do I trust my neighbor to care for me?”

We’ll have to wait and see. You’re up soon.