The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can Americans follow their own vaccine rules?

Howard Holland receives a coronavirus vaccine at Fair Park in Dallas on Wednesday. (LM Otero/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Some people want it bad — so bad that they’re hovering in the supermarket aisle closest to the pharmacy, pretending to contemplate an array of child-friendly shampoos but actually awaiting the late-in-the-day announcement of leftover, soon-to-spoil doses of coronavirus vaccine.

Some people don’t want it at all, not because they don’t believe it works but because they don’t believe they deserve it when so many others remain vulnerable.

Those of us who don’t have vaccine envy have vaccine shame. But can we really tell what’s wrong from what’s right amid the mad rush for distribution?

From the moment this deus ex medicina appeared on the horizon, the arguments began. Everyone from doctors to bureaucrats to mere armchair ethicists had something to say about who ought to go first and who ought to go last. There was, of course, the question of where to position those most likely to become gravely ill relative to those most likely to be exposed. There was the age 75 vs. age 65 debate.

There was even the matter of whether at a certain point some adults, say age 35, should have priority over slightly older adults because the younger have more life to live — and therefore, more life to lose.

And this: Should we pay hesitant people to get jabbed? Wait, no, should we auction off doses to the wealthy and use the proceeds to make more vaccine, or even beef up the stimulus package?

These types of conundrums have always been popular in freshman-year college seminars, where eager students engage in philosophical toe-dipping. Suddenly, we could bring those musings out of the classroom and into the world and everyone could participate. Or so we thought.

The first month of mass inoculations has been a mess, and the months to come don’t look a lot better. Health-care workers are so busy taking care of covid-19 patients, there haven’t been enough people to give shots to the doctors and the nurses who most need it.

Even when they know where to go and when, some seniors have struggled to make appointments and keep them, which has slowed administration of the vaccine in the next eligible swath.

Sometimes there’s a problem with supply, meaning not enough of it. Sometimes there’s a problem with demand, meaning not enough of that, either. Sometimes there’s a problem matching the two up.

The last explains those grocery store lurkers, hiding out among the granola bars and instant oatmeal and hoping for the loudspeakers to blare out their salvation. Sit too long at room temperature, and doses are rendered useless.

Maybe the lurking is evil. Or maybe it’s a service. Better that a 20-something snatch up a dose than no one does. At least the lucky fellow is helping build herd immunity and (we hope) stopping the spread of any disease that he’d otherwise carry to the older and weaker among us.

Certainly, there’s a difference between accepting what you’re offered and furtively seeking it out. But where’s the dividing line? Should you, for example, travel to a community clinic in the next county over because officials there have okayed a wider pool of eligibility?

The category-making conducted by those in charge to mete out this manna as morally as possible has occasionally produced an utterly immoral outcome. New York’s restrictive rules initially resulted not in the careful, considered rollout with all equities balanced that its planners imagined, but instead in the widespread waste of lifesaving medicine because the shots were too widely available for too narrow a group of authorized first recipients.

Our own efforts to be selfless can have the same unintended effects: Perhaps it’s even irresponsible to refuse a dose when you do qualify, imagining what would have ended up in your arm will end up in the trash. Sometimes our supposed selfishness can end up doing the most for society.

What these attempts all have in common is hubris and hope. This past year has been disempowering for all humankind, which has found itself helpless in the face of nature. We’re preparing to end the plague now. That makes us feel more powerful. We feel bigger still if we can impose order on a world that has taken its own course of late, almost without any regard for whom it kills and whom it lets survive.

Our rules about who gets the vaccine in what order allow us to say, in an unfair age, what we think is fair — and try to bring that into being.

Except we can’t. Some of us refuse to wait. Others just wait too long. As we work to save ourselves, we are learning that the best we can do sometimes isn’t good enough.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this column: The trials and tribulations of finding a coronavirus vaccine

Molly Roberts: Trump botched the perfect getaway

Drew Altman: We need a better way of distributing the covid-19 vaccine. Here’s how to do it.

Greg Sargent: How Biden will try to fix our vaccine rollout mess

Leana S. Wen: Releasing more vaccines for first doses could create more problems than it solves

Joan Bregstein: Think about getting vaccinated like voting. It’s your civic duty.