There is nothing more urgent in the world today than to get people vaccinated against COVID-19. Fail to do so, and the pandemic drags on inevitably. Make it happen and we can begin contemplating a world beyond the misery of today.
But we are finding, as we have throughout this pandemic, that the ingrained rules that our societies are built on do not vanish simply because there is a deadly disease stalking the land. The disparities built into our world are being replicated over and over again, and now they are causing the vaccines to be rolled out in deeply unequal ways.
The stories are everywhere. White people, rich people, and powerful countries are all getting the vaccine in disproportionate numbers while the rest of the world finds itself either lagging behind or shut out entirely—this despite the fact that people of color and poor people have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
An Associated Press story this weekend looked at who was getting the vaccine across the U.S. and found the same thing, over and over and over again:
An early look at the 17 states and two cities that have released racial breakdowns through Jan. 25 found that Black people in all places are getting inoculated at levels below their share of the general population, in some cases significantly below.
That is true even though they constitute an oversize percentage of the nation’s health care workers, who were put at the front of the line for shots when the campaign began in mid-December.
— In Philadelphia, Black people are 40% of the population but just 14% of the people vaccinated in the city so far. Hispanics are 15% of the population and 4% of the vaccine recipients.
— In Chicago, Black people make up 30% of the population but only 15% of those vaccinated. With Hispanics, the numbers are 29% versus 17%.
Data released by New York City over the weekend is straightforward and grim. “Three white residents receive a COVID-19 vaccine for every Black or Latino person in the city,” Gothamist reported on Sunday.
It’s not just the U.S. A New York Times story on Sunday contains this startling statistic about sub-Saharan Africa:
So what is going on here? A charitable reading of the disparity in the U.S. would suggest that some of the numbers are being skewed by the overrepresentation of white Americans in the 65-and-over categories that are mostly eligible for the vaccine. But that is itself a sign of racism’s toll; COVID-19 has widened already-existing gaps between Black and white life expectancy and has sent Black and Latinx life expectancy tumbling at disproportionate rates. You could chalk it up to greater rates of vaccine hesitancy among communities of color, but that, too, is a symptom of white supremacy.
No matter where you start, you wind up at the same place: a racist society producing racist outcomes.
You can see how this plays out even in ways that might not seem so directly linked. Take this damning and enraging New York Times story from Monday about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining health experts in his state’s vaccine rollout. As the Times reported, Cuomo tossed aside models that had been in the works for literal decades and instead made up his own plan on the fly, with the help of lobbyist buddies. And guess what happened (emphasis mine):
The state designated as a regional vaccination hub in New York City not the city’s 6,000-person Health Department, but rather the Greater New York Hospital Association, a trade group with a multimillion-dollar lobbying arm that had been a major donor to the governor’s causes.
The approach included narrow eligibility rules and suffered from a lack of urgency by some hospitals. That led to fewer doses being administered in the early weeks, followed by abrupt shifts in policy that created a kind of free-for-all among those searching for vaccine appointments, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former health officials, county leaders, vaccination experts and elected officials.
Who wins in a “free-for-all”? Who benefits when the government puts up barrier after barrier to a vaccine, including an inscrutable online application? You guessed it: white people, rich people, well-connected people—people with the time and effort and money to jump the line, or to stay on the phone, or to sit at their computer for hours, or to travel long distances to get a shot.
The immediate answer to all of this is clear: Governments at every level have to actually prioritize the equitable distribution of the vaccine. When there is no decent, competent response from the state, everyone is left to fend for themselves. Moreover, when the government response falls away, the rest of us fall into the same patterns we’ve been in throughout this crisis: shaming and blaming each other rather than training our attention on the people nominally in charge of getting us out of this thing. If the state gets its act together and delivers vaccines on the scale and in the way they should be delivered, we will not have these problems.
The broader answer to the situation is the same one as always: the destruction of white supremacy and everything that goes along with it.