In the United States, an advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already trying to answer such questions. On Tuesday, the panel said health-care workers and long-term care residents and staff should get priority treatment. First responders should be next. But who’s next in line? Older Americans more generally, perhaps — however “older” is defined. And then people with preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, heart and respiratory conditions, and other diseases that would likely place a person at high risk.
Perhaps I read too much science fiction in my youth, but I see a lot of potential for this new world of “vaccine sorting” to go down poorly with the public. We are already living in a world gone scared. Add to it now a cure in, for the moment, short supply. Can we, as humans, remain calm and wait our turns?
I am not sure. I keep imagining the Titanic: Which passengers got lifeboat seats, and which were left to their own resources? Women, children and the elderly got first dibs. Men, ever chivalrous and valiant, stayed behind to bravely face their doom. In the movie version, some rich person steals a baby to earn himself a lifeboat seat.
So, if the vaccine could save us, it will also reveal our truest selves. If people with preexisting conditions get an early place in line, should that include smokers or other people who have diseases aggravated by poor lifestyle choices? They are surely more at risk than healthy people. Will people with borderline conditions insist on special treatment?
And then there is the question of whether to require the vaccine. It is in the broad interest of the public for as many people as possible to develop immunity from the virus. But what if a healthy 30-year-old doesn’t want to be injected with a little bit of the virus? Can she be forced? It is already clear that many people from across the spectrum are suspicious of a government-organized vaccination program.
There are also questions about our relationship with our employers. Can they force us to get a vaccine? Is that a reasonable condition of employment?
While most Americans are relieved to hear that a vaccine is coming, many of us may be disappointed to hear that our turns won’t come until next spring or perhaps later, even if all goes well. What recourse will be available to those who feel they’ve been left behind?
So, news of the vaccine is cause for celebration — or, at least, relief. But the more one thinks about the mind-bending logistical challenges and extrapolates to a variety of possible scenarios, even the best champagne begins to lose its bubble.
I’m probably no different than most people. I’ve developed late-onset asthma and tend toward pulmonary inflammation at the drop of a dust mite. After years of getting an annual flu shot, this year’s version put me to bed for a few hours. Am I scared? No, I’m not — except of the virus — and so I look forward to getting the shots when my turn comes.
Philosophically, I think the vaccine may fall under the category of civic duty. In a sense, we are inoculating ourselves for each other. This, apparently, is how former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are treating the question. In an act of civic heroism, the three have volunteered to receive the vaccine publicly in an attempt to ease public fears. President-elect Joe Biden has said he’ll do the same as soon as doctors give him a green light. He says he also plans to ask all Americans to wear a mask during the first 100 days of his administration, and will make mask-wearing mandatory in federal buildings and on public transportation.
All things considered, it’s a small ask. What’s another 100 days compared with another year like the one coming to a close? If the outgoing president, whose name escapes me, had asked the same of us rather than making a mockery of the suffering and sacrifice of so many Americans, we might be having a very different conversation.