The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s Prague on the Potomac, as we wearily wait for a shot at the vaccine

A Maryland resident receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in the parking lot of Six Flags on Feb. 5 in Upper Marlboro.
A Maryland resident receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in the parking lot of Six Flags on Feb. 5 in Upper Marlboro. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

“It’s like the Hunger Games,” Eileen Robbins said from her car in a parking lot filled with National Guard members.

Robbins, like many Marylanders, hunted online day and by-the-blue-glow-of-a-computer night for a vaccine appointment for her husband, Richard, who is 65 and eligible to get the vaccine. Suddenly one morning at 7 — bam! — she found one and, tappity-tap fast, signed him up. But only him. At 62, she’s too young to qualify for the injection herself.

“It’s his Valentine’s Day present,” she said, resting her hand on his arm as the couple sat in the parking lot of Six Flags America, one of the first mass vaccination sites to open in the state.

He was one of just 250 lucky people to get a vaccine injection there — the soft open means the site, which the Maryland National Guard has been deployed to help run, is well below its eventual capacity of thousands.

Every person I talked to in the well-run but sparsely attended operation in the shadow of roller coaster loop-de-loops was triumphant that they got the injection, but also frustrated by the difficult, confusing and chaotic process of getting an appointment.

And this felt familiar, almost nostalgic.

A confusing system of dead ends, icy bureaucrats and beleaguered workers? Check.

Long lines in the cold for hours, with no promise of success? Check.

A hierarchy where officials and their comrades are the ones who get the vaccine first? Check.

Or, should I say, Czech.

The newest curse of covid-19? Vaccine envy.

This past year in coronavirus America — from a president who told lies daily without flinching to long lines, confusion, chaos and inequity in the vaccine rollout — reminds me of life with my family in communist Czechoslovakia.

It’s Prague on the Potomac. But without the good beer and dumplings, which were some of the only constants in my parents’ homeland during the years of dictatorial communism.

Journalist Anne Applebaum, formerly of The Washington Post, drew this similarity with her piece in the Atlantic last week that compared the vaccine rollout and scramble for appointments in Maryland to a Soviet line for cabbage.

It was spot on, and it underscored why my mom, who came to America in 1968, has been truly despondent about our nation for the first time in more than half a century.

“It’s like those communists who just lied and lied,” she said last fall of President Donald Trump, nearly spitting the word “communists” in a tone I’ve only ever heard her reserve for “Trump” (and maybe “that American cotton white bread”).

“You didn’t even listen to them because everyvon knew everthink they said vas a lie,” she said, in an accent that gets more pronounced when she’s angry.

Mom has admired all the American presidents, from Carter to Reagan to Obama, and believed our leaders because she trusted in the basic integrity of our democracy. My dad painted red and white stripes on our trash cans and festooned their blue lids with white stars. Same with the oars on our inflatable raft — everything was a canvas to display his patriotism in this new land of freedom.

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But now I hear disgust and hopelessness in their voices as they call from their home in California and tell us they’re on a list to get the vaccine, but they don’t know when and where or how they’ll ever get it. Both are survivors of cancer who have long been impressed with America’s health-care system, until now. They feel let down.

It’s the same tone my Aunt Zdena used during her daily search for toilet paper when I stayed with her in Prague in the 1980s. (A toilet paper shortage — sound familiar?)

“Papir neni,” the clerks would say once we’d get to them, after waiting in a long line that we queued up for without knowing what it was for. (“If it’s a line, you get in it. You never know what they’ll have,” she told me.)

“Good afternoon, we don’t have any appointments for the vaccine. Thank you for calling Walmart pharmacy. Can I help you with anything else today?” said the pharmacist at the big-box store on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — one of many I called recently, testing a theory that vaccine appointments might be available in coronavirus-doubting rural areas.

But they were gone there, too.

Chaos and confusion in the vaccine rollout in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

Although they had months — at least 10 but probably around 13 — to prepare for a vaccine rollout that was swift, organized, equitable and efficient — the governments in our region, as well as across America, are flailing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The federal rollout was practically nonexistent and they’re not allocating enough vaccine to cover eligible Americans. But states should’ve been ready to create an accessible, nimble and singular system of appointments.

“A month,” said Ben Daniels, 36, who teaches geography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and finally got his vaccine Monday morning at Six Flags. “It took a month of searching to find this appointment.”

The soft open meant he didn’t wait in line once he got there, but at other mass vaccination sites across the nation, people waited in line for one, two and even four hours to get their injections.

The dysfunction is one of the signs of a “dying superpower,” Applebaum wrote.

True. Our relatives in Prague have been asking us recently: “What’s happening in this America of yours?”

What’s happening? We’re trying to recover from an administration that recklessly played down the pandemic and a Congress that’s perpetually in fight mode, too busy bickering to pass a relief bill that will fund a nationwide vaccine effort.

It’s a massive undertaking, vaccinating an entire nation. But America has done great things before, and a united nation can do it again.

It’ll take the leadership that America has shown in the past.

And the perseverance of my Aunt Zdena.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

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