It’s estimated that by the end of 2021, the U.S. could reach herd immunity. Even with the promising news that most Americans will be vaccinated within the next several months, many have raced to find loopholes in order to accelerate this timeline for themselves.
When it comes to vaccine distribution, it seems that some have adopted the mentality that it’s every person for themself — morality is thrown out of the window. Those who have the means to exploit these loopholes are doing everything they can to receive the vaccine before the general public. For these people, it seems that moral gray areas have grown, leading them to make some ethically unsound decisions. How has the last year shaped our ethics? How has the vaccine distribution underscored this emerging moral groundlessness, and how will it continue to do so? This ethically questionable behavior from those in positions of privilege has exacerbated existing disparities in vaccine rollout.
When he first announced the Commonwealth’s plans for vaccine distribution, Gov. Charlie Baker reassured Massachusetts residents that equity would be at the forefront of these plans. The administration had planned that 20% of the vaccine supply would be set aside for the hardest-hit communities when Phase 2 began. This included prisons, homeless shelters and towns that have experienced extensive hardships in the wake of the pandemic.
However, now that we are in Phase 2, it is unclear if this will truly be the case. There are clear disparities between the rate at which populations have received the vaccine; white residents are getting the vaccine at a faster rate than the Commonwealth’s residents of color. As of March 18, 26% of white residents have received at least one dose, compared to 17% of Black residents and 10% of Hispanic residents. Massachusetts will begin Phase 3 of distribution on April 19, a phase that will include all those over the age of 16 not previously covered in Phases 1 and 2.
Despite the fact that Phase 3 is only a few weeks away, many individuals are rushing to get the vaccine as soon as possible, using their privilege to do so. This privilege has manifested in a number of ways: First, those who can afford to travel or have their own cars have been driving across state borders in order to get the vaccine. While an individual may not have been eligible in Massachusetts, they may have qualified in a nearby state, prompting them to make the journey.
Second, those with the most privilege are likely undaunted by the potential repercussions of lying in order to get the vaccine. In New York, when scheduling an appointment for the vaccine, one is required to check a box indicating that they “hereby certify under penalty of law that [they] live in New York City or, if [they are] claiming eligibility based on work or employment status, that [they] work in New York City.” For those who feel that they could easily elude legal consequences, the words “under penalty of law” may not prevent them from lying. Given the systemic racism that pervades American legal institutions, this penalty likely holds varying weight for different communities. Those who have been historically privileged within legal and criminal justice systems — namely, white individuals — are less likely to be deterred from bending the rules.
The justification of certain decision-making thrusts many Americans into an ever-expanding moral grey area. In some cases, individuals who qualified to receive the vaccine early are unable to, as out-of-state or presently ineligible individuals use up limited supply. Since vaccine rollout varies state by state, the populations who are eligible for the vaccine vary as well.
Even so, individuals who are not considered high risk or do not meet state eligibility requirements still manipulate the system to receive a vaccine early. Justifications vary. Some may argue that everyone will get vaccinated eventually or that pandemic restrictions have endured for too long, but one truth remains: These justifications exacerbate harmful public health and socioeconomic disparities. Those with access to the internet, a community with a medical presence and the time to search for vaccine appointments are benefitting from an inequitable system. Whether or not these individuals believe their justifications are worthy, their actions reinforce a growing moral grey area and venture onto ethically tumultuous grounds.
These decisions often elicit judgment from others. There exists a wide spectrum of varying degrees of comfort surrounding which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. Some people have always felt comfortable dining indoors at restaurants, while others have been wary of setting foot in a grocery store.
A similar variation in opinion applies to receiving the vaccine. Friends and families engage in ongoing conversations about whose justifications for getting the vaccine are valid or who has acted immorally. No matter how our closest social networks may view vaccine loopholes, it is important to acknowledge that individual actions have communal ramifications; the reality is that those with privilege have received the vaccine at higher rates than those without it, and efforts to actively leverage privilege have contributed to these inequities in distribution.
While widespread vaccination is crucial, as rollout proceeds, we must center on ethics and empathy. If you have the privilege to continue to work from home, limit travel. If you don’t possess a pre-existing condition that puts you at greater risk, allow those who don’t have such luxuries to receive the vaccine before you. If you’re able to get a vaccine appointment before your phase begins, try to ensure you’re acting to reduce vaccine waste, and that eligible individuals in the area have been able to secure necessary appointments. If you do receive the vaccine, recognize that it does not mean the pandemic no longer affects you, or that your actions don’t have consequences. It’s vital that vaccinated individuals continue to follow COVID-19 protocols while we await the vaccination of underserved and marginalized populations and the attainment of herd immunity.
We have entered a realm of moral instability over the last year. Despite the difficulty of our circumstances, we should not disregard the moral implications of our choices. While we should collectively work towards herd immunity and eliminate vaccine waste wherever we can, we should first ensure that highly impacted communities are able to receive their vaccinations. This means not getting the vaccine during a phase in which you’re ineligible if sites around you do not have excess supply. With the acknowledgment of existing loopholes, we should recognize that just because you can get vaccinated ahead of schedule does not always mean you should.