Who knew that people having needles stuck in their arms would be the feel-good trend of 2020? And yet here we are, getting misty-eyed over videos of the COVID vaccine being administered.
It started last week in England, with 90-year-old Margaret Keenan cheerfully proffering her arm up to history. Now, Americans get to join in. On Monday, Queens nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person in the U.S. to receive the Pfizer vaccine, which was approved by the FDA over the weekend. Even for the most withered and jaded souls, it was a bit of a goosebump moment.
A nationwide rollout is underway, and Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC that, with any luck, even people with no underlying health conditions should be able to get a jab by April.
Assuming that the vaccines are as safe as they appear to be, and work as well as they’re supposed to, this is all wonderful news. Getting multiple vaccines up and running in less than a year is an incredible scientific achievement. Nobel Prizes and lifelong fame and fortune are surely ahead for the people who made it happen. With any luck, we will hopefully be out of this hell sooner rather than later.
But the vaccine is not enough. I don’t say that in a “we still have to wear masks!!!” way, though that is obviously true. (Lindsay emphasized this in her remarks after having received the vaccine.) I mean that the vaccine is not a cure for the underlying mess in America that COVID has deepened.
Lindsay herself is a reminder of this. She was presumably chosen to get the vaccine in part because she is a Black woman. Black communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID, and there is also concern that hard-earned skepticism about government medical programs will depress the take-up of the vaccine among Black people. So putting Lindsay on camera in such a high-profile way is a useful bit of public health work.
It is, of course, vital that people get the vaccine. But that is not enough. One analysis estimated that Black people were more than twice as likely to lose their health insurance coverage during the pandemic than white people. The Black unemployment rate is nearly double the white unemployment rate. Federal housing aid has disproportionately helped white people, and Black and Latinx people are more likely to be caught up in the country’s impending wave of evictions.
Simply put, if you have a vaccine but no job and no home, you don’t have much to celebrate. If everyone gets a vaccine but we make no progress on true health equity in this country, or don’t do much to keep people in their homes, or skimp on a federal stimulus package, or make only tepid attempts to get people working again, we will not have actually beaten the pandemic, because we won’t have tackled the conditions that made it possible for COVID to tear through the U.S. with such devastating force. We won’t have ensured that people can really recover from what they’ve been through. The vaccine is not a holy moment. It’s not the beginning of the end—not by itself, anyway. So much more needs to happen before this thing is truly over.