The smoking exemption is a reminder that the next wave of coronavirus vaccine eligibility criteria has taken the bright lines of age requirements and replaced them with a smudgy mess. The various medical and professional categories rolled out across the country to guarantee an orderly mass immunization have so many loopholes they seem to collapse into themselves.
Put another way: We’ve reached a turning point where we must all choose between what we can do and what we should do about getting vaccinated and when. That’s a choice we normally make every day without realizing. Now, we cannot help but think about it.
There’s enough ambiguity in the new rules that it’s now up to us to do some self-defining. Never mind the anger over whether it’s right to “reward” a smoker with an early shot: What even is a smoker? What is an asthmatic, for that matter? Someone who uses an inhaler regularly, or someone who just stashes it in a drawer somewhere? Obesity moves you up in line, but obesity for these purposes is based on body mass index, or BMI, and plenty of people consider BMI fatphobic.
Another example: Soon, in D.C., members of the media will be permitted to enroll for inoculation. But pounding the pavement to attend protests or conduct face-to-face interviews carries more risks than, say, sitting at home writing a column. The system says reporters can get a vaccine if we want, but one wonders whether the system really understands how some of us work.
Sleazy maneuvers to jump the line are questionable, but what is really unacceptable? Counting on the clinic not to check your job description might be one thing; driving to a jurisdiction with no residency requirement where you are eligible earlier is quite another. Following the rules when the rules carry a whiff of injustice is not always wrong; and it might sometimes be right.
Sometimes, it’s just uncomfortable. O.J. Simpson, 73 and firmly in the initial batch of recipients, can tell you. “Got my second shot,” he tweeted. “Go get yours.”
O.J. “got his vaccine before my elderly grandmother. What a world,” someone responded, to which someone else replied: “Did your grandma rush for 2,000 yards in a single season?”
The sarcasm holds another lesson: Let’s say a state did decree that vaccine distribution should proceed according to total yardage achieved in professional football. That’s totally out of sync with any ethical framework. But when the MVPs show up with their biceps bared for injection, would it be fairer to blame them or the officials who gave them next dibs? Probably best to blame the disease so dangerous that lax requirements are preferable to an even-more-sluggish rollout. The more people who get the vaccine, the better, after all.
Here in Washington, the local government recently started prioritizing underserved Zip codes for appointments after officials discovered that a disproportionate number of the vaccinated lived in wealthier wards. That worked: Suddenly, affluent folks found it far harder to snag a spot in the queue. What was happening before was that those who already had a lot of privilege were using it, consciously or not, to privilege themselves even more. Maybe they had faster Internet connections; maybe they had a keener knowledge of what was available to whom when; maybe they knew someone at the technology firm overseeing the sign-up software.
All these cases force us to confront a basic reality we usually ignore: We don’t always deserve what we’re given. And others aren’t given what they deserve. This happens in a great, big, capitalist country such as this one, and it happens in countries that put a heartier emphasis on equality.
The most fortunate among us reap the rewards of an unjust society without stopping to ask why. We can cast this trouble aside in good times, because day-to-day life doesn’t routinely thrust the truth so dramatically in our faces — or in our veins. But we can’t ignore it in this crisis.
While it is tempting to skip the hard questions, we’re learning today that these matters aren’t academic exercises or parlor games. And what better to consider while we’re cooped up waiting our turn for a shot? Besides getting a start on those 100 cigarettes.