The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The vaccination system is awful, you say? Try getting a housing voucher or U.S. citizenship.

Cars lined up at a mass vaccine site that opened for Maryland residents in the parking lot of Six Flags in Bowie.
Cars lined up at a mass vaccine site that opened for Maryland residents in the parking lot of Six Flags in Bowie. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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“So why don’t they just get the vaccine? It can’t be that hard.”

“They need to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get vaccinated!”

This is how it would sound if the people fighting to get coronavirus vaccination appointments were treated the same way that people struggling to get housing vouchers, government health care or American citizenship have been treated for years.

Vaccine hunters are spending hours — no, days — online and on the phone trying to maneuver through a janky and unwieldy system to simply secure an appointment to get a shot.

And it may be one of the first times many in America’s privileged classes have had to mount such a headbanging struggle for basic care.

“This is ridiculous,” an elderly friend told me over the phone the other day. “We are in our 70s . . . and we can’t get an appointment.”

For most of this woman’s life, the systems have worked. The mail comes, the health insurance pays, when she feels sick, she calls a doctor and makes an appointment. Rarely has she and others like her been so utterly unable to get what they need.

And social media has become a flood of their frustration.

“I’m done chasing. This is very stressful,” one woman from Montgomery County wrote on Facebook. “I’m 72 in Silver Spring MD with no car. Clicking all over the place. Holding on for hours.”

“Ugh. This is all so frustrating. Calling and calling, websites and websites. Just nothing. Zero. I’ve pretty much given up,” a Chevy Chase man added.

“Feeling frustrated . . . my first time having this happen . . . has this happened to anyone else?” a New Jersey woman who was trying to get her mom an appointment vented.

And these frustrations reminded me of something I have heard from struggling folks wrangling government systems throughout my entire reporting career.

“It wasn’t easy,” Liana Montecinos told me three years ago, after she spent 10 years trying to become an American citizen.

She was almost deported as a teen. Now she helps others like her.

That process was hearings and paperwork, and more hearings and waiting. It was taking days off work or school. Nothing like a simple application process imagined by those folks who tell me that undocumented immigrants should “just do it legally.” Or, “I support LEGAL immigration.”

Getting legal has always been a bureaucratic process at least 100 times more complex than getting a CVS appointment for a vaccine.

The waiting list for one path to citizenship was between 75 and 100 years long, I learned a couple of years ago when I met a Washington, D.C., family stuck abroad, missing school and work for weeks because of a dysfunctional system to renew their visas.

A D.C. family is stranded in India by our dysfunctional immigration system

While waiting to become a U.S. citizen, Saurav Mazumdar returns to India with his family every three years to renew his H1B visa. He and his wife have been in America for more than two decades, their kids are Americans and go to a D.C. public school, they are both highly skilled, specialized workers, and it’s still not simple.

Then there are the people who don’t understand why the uninsured don’t simply get insurance.

Last month, I talked to Alma Salado, a 28-year-old mother whose government-sponsored insurance plan required that she make an in-person appointment with her daughter every six months to continue to qualify.

Why should it take a pandemic to make common-sense changes to this health insurance plan?

That meant that twice a year, she had to take a day off work and her daughter missed a day of school so they could get in line in the dark hours of the early morning.

Sometimes, they got to the front of the line and the clerk didn’t like her paperwork. Sometimes, after two hours in line, there were no more appointments and she had to try again.

It’s not too different from what homeless families go through when they try to get into a shelter or subsidized housing.

They have to be at the District housing office in person, where they wait and wait in line to get some kind of paperwork filled out, and then often have to come back and stand in line again.

At that point, they might have missed the line to get into the shelter for the night.

Throughout the day Monday, scores of witnesses told the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services of their grinding, difficult quest for housing.

Tamara Holmes, 40, told the committee about her frustration with being on a subsidized housing list she joined when she was the single mom of an infant in 2004. That child is now 16 years old, and they’re still on the list.

“I ran around in circles, I ran into brick walls,” Holmes said.

One woman said that after 30 years of struggle, she learned how quickly someone can disappear from the system if you don’t have all your documentation.

“There is nothing you can do without your receipts,” she said.

Sort of reminds you of struggling to get the coronavirus shot, doesn’t it?

Eventually, everyone who wants to will get vaccinated. The frustration will end.

But it shouldn’t be this hard.

Nor should it be so hard to access anything else as crucial as housing, health care or citizenship. But it is.

And it feels awful, doesn’t it?

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

The scramble for vaccines is like Prague on the Potomac

As the Capitol riot unfolded, one man felt uniquely betrayed

The return to school during a pandemic may be weirdly lonely