Sometimes it feels like the pandemic is trudging along at a miserably slow pace, so it is easy to forget that the COVID-19 vaccine process is moving at lightning speed. When the virus broke out in the United States last spring, everyone I knew imagined a summer like no other, assuming that things would be back to normal by then. Clearly, the pandemic is lingering far beyond last spring. However, the process of vaccine production has moved with unprecedented speed. What will happen when the vaccine is finalized? COVID-19 has exposed the major failures of the United States’ healthcare system. The onslaught of the pandemic was the system’s first test, which it failed miserably. The second test will come with the vaccine and its distribution.
Two companies, Pfizer and Moderna, have made announcements regarding the promising results of their COVID-19 vaccines. Tentative plans for distribution are taking shape at both the federal and state levels. Many plans involve priority access to at-risk communities, such as healthcare workers. But the issue of price is also at play. Most Americans will receive the vaccine through their insurance, at no added cost. But many Americans will not. In 2018, roughly 27.5 million Americans did not have health insurance. Since the beginning of the pandemic, that number has increased by millions. The uninsured may face an upfront cost for getting vaccinated, which will damage both the country and the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Those who are uninsured are generally the most vulnerable, low-income populations. The pandemic has slammed these communities in more ways than one. Low-income families simply cannot afford some of the precautions that others take with respect to the pandemic. It was a privilege to have worked from home during the quarantine while essential, and often low-income, workers continued to show up in-person. And those who kept essential services up and running are now being persecuted by our profit-driven healthcare system.
The uninsured have faced the worst of the pandemic, and it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that they have access to a vaccine when it becomes available. Some pharmaceutical companies have speculated that they will charge between $4 and $20 for a dose. This is not an extremely high cost, but keep in mind that these vaccines have two doses, and the upfront charge is not the only cost. People may need to take time off work and pay for a doctor visit and public transportation. Not to mention the fact that large-scale production of the vaccine will be extremely difficult, and availability could be limited. At the end of the day, there will be people who will fall through the cracks and lose their opportunity for a vaccine. And that is the last thing we need, especially with the numbers of anti-vaxxers increasing.
257,000 people have died of the coronavirus in America. The loss is unimaginable, and the number is shameful to our country. America’s failure to adequately handle COVID-19 can be traced back to an array of causes. It is a product of misinformation, the Trump Administration, and some people’s pathetic appeal to their supposed constitutional right to not wear a mask. These issues have been given a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But our failure is also a product of the profit-driven healthcare system that denies any sense of compassion for the sick.
The prospect that uninsured people will need to pay for the vaccine is also an expression of the failure of our profit-driven healthcare system. It is all too easy to go online and find story after story about an injured woman who refused to call an ambulance due to its cost, or a diabetic man who died after resorting to cheaper insulin. These stories are heartbreaking, and they do not stand alone. They are a reflection of our failing system. I cannot help but foresee a news story in 2021 about an uninsured man who couldn’t afford the COVID-19 vaccine, and his tragic obituary a few weeks later. I cannot help but foresee that story on a nationwide scale.
Here at Boston College, we are taught to be men and women for others. A man or a woman for others does not value profit over the health of their neighbor. The United States has an urgent necessity for adequate public health infrastructure and a system of universal healthcare. Joe Biden’s election is a promising step in the right direction, but the fight will linger on. The COVID-19 vaccine is appearing on the horizon, but its success will depend on our fight for healthcare reform.