Checking The Boston Globe’s daily 4 p.m. update of Massachusetts’ COVID numbers for almost a year now has been mostly a cycle of angst and wavering acceptance. The drop from the peak around June of 2020, for instance, was temporary and cases rebounded with a vengeance as some gatherings ensued in the summer months and schools reopened in September. However, the recent weeks’ slow trickle-down of cases has been a comforting reminder of the power of the new vaccines to get our world back into some semblance of normalcy. While mask-wearing and physical distancing can be seen as a more effective public health tool, as experts have described, the long-term potential for vaccines to heal our world of the coronavirus provides us with hope.
When Pfizer and Moderna (which, of course, made a Bostonian like myself proud) announced the effectiveness of their vaccines, it offered a huge sigh of relief. For a split second, my critical eye turned off and considered the possibility that COVID would be a thing of the past by sometime this spring and be merely another ailment that requires a seasonal vaccine. However, aligning with a broader theme of the pandemic, the rollout of these vaccines has exposed deep-seated, systemic flaws which lay purposefully masked to the “average” eye. The fact that two doses of the vaccine are required for self-immunity, only two companies have products available for safe widespread use, and the vaccination of the entire U.S. population is more or less an unprecedented event do not help the tricky process.
Examples of flaws in the vaccine rollout span from the federal to local level. For one, similar to what was done in the spring with testing, Mr. Trump “delegated” the rollout process to each individual state. States simply do not have ample leadership or population-encompassing measures in place to facilitate the rollout of vaccines. For another, local municipalities often do not have clear channels of communication with state officials, which often leads to miscommunication and spouts of confusion. In addition, decisions regarding where to stage certain demographics of the population creates an ethical dilemma and has not been adequately discussed in advance of the public health emergency.
Other issues are tied more to healthcare. Medical staffing at vaccine distribution sites is a gambling game, as finding enough nurses or pharmacists becomes very difficult even when considering pulling folks from their ordinary jobs or even their retirement. Involving the National Guard as a form of assistance for distribution has also proved tumultuous, as the communication lines between federal and state governments stop short. Not to mention that logging and tracking patients (keeping in mind that the entire population represents the patient pool) is unsuitable for the algorithms and machinery that states have in place already.
All of these flaws point to the fact that the infrastructure, leadership, and protocol of our country are not designed to service the general public’s health needs (This argument could also be made for servicing the public “in general.”). The privatization and corporatization of healthcare systems and health insurance, which often covers vaccines, mean that government health service to the general population is not part of the agenda. Healthcare workers, vaccine products, and population-wide public health initiatives have never been a part of our government’s concern. Unfortunately, it takes a pandemic prompting the rollout of a vaccine to expose this injustice, but it is nonetheless present in a state purposefully left invisible to the uncritical eye. This makes the flaw inherently more dangerous and just perpetuates the suppression of our basic health needs.
The way to address the government’s lack of public health awareness is complicated and bound to be roadblocked, particularly because the problem is systemic and has been baked into the U.S. narrative of oppression for almost three centuries. However, awareness and admittance of the issue by all of us is necessary. This should not and cannot be thought of as a partisan issue or an attack on “privacy” and “government intervention.”
While COVID and other public health threats disproportionately affect marginalized groups and those left powerless, physical diseases do not spare individuals depending on their socioeconomic status. I suggest we all reflect with humility on the shortcomings of our nation’s government and look to propose solutions that will benefit the common good. Despite the fact that other health concerns may not be as obvious and disrupting to most of us as COVID, it is time to consider the role of our government in prioritizing our well-being.