As I passed my neighborhood Walgreens, I paused momentarily, peering nonchalantly in the large storefront window hoping to catch a glimpse of people getting their Covid vaccinations. After more than a year of masking, quarantining and social distancing, I was finally eligible for mine and yet, I kept putting it off. Would today be the day?
I scanned the room. There were the uneasy and the anxious, the relieved and the relaxed. Just as I was trying to read their faces and their minds, someone exiting the store held the door open for me. I quickly turned and left.
As I walked home, I wondered why I was hesitant to receive this lifesaving, life-changing vaccine? Everyone I knew was already fully vaccinated. Inquiries from family and friends kept coming and I was running out of excuses: I’m waiting until I’m eligible. I’m waiting until they have more availability. I’m waiting until more appointments open up.
Clearly, I was waiting. But for what? I have always fancied myself a pragmatist who trusted science and believed in facts. My reluctance was becoming an existential crisis. I began questioning my values, beliefs and how I would look in a tinfoil hat. Before I slid further down the rabbit hole of total personal excoriation, I needed more information.
One in four Americans say they will refuse a coronavirus vaccine. Another 5% are “undecided.” The numbers were highest among Republican men and residents of rural areas, but a significant number of people across all ages and demographics claim they will say “no.” If being lockstep with the demographic “Republican men” wasn’t enough to make me run screaming back to Walgreens with my sleeves rolled up, I’m not sure what would.
No one is immune to the unique challenge pandemics pose. They expose just how profoundly our fates are entwined. “Scientists estimate that 70 to 90 percent of the total population must acquire resistance to the virus to reach herd immunity. About 31 percent of adults in the United States have now been fully vaccinated.”
While vaccines eradicated Smallpox and Polio, that was before Big Pharma began peddling prescription drugs for profit. When asked who owned the patent on his polio vaccine, virologist Jonas Salk said, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Salk’s refusal to patent his polio vaccine is unheard of today, as drug companies market medications to the public the way Nike sells sneakers or used car salesmen try to move the last Buick off the lot. There are only two countries in the world where direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is even legal: The United States and New Zealand. And who can forget “Pharma Bro” Martin Shreli’s cruel and unconscionable 5,000 percent price hike of a life-saving drug from $13.50 to $750.
While skepticism toward the pharmaceutical industry may be justified, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was recently suspended after eight cases of serious blood clots were reported, but this was after 7.4 million Americans received the shot.
We may never fully understand what motivates people to act or not to act. Maybe some don’t want to return to the way things were. Maybe viruses are Mother Nature’s calling card for a course correction. During the lockdown, nature appeared to be healing. Wildlife seemed to revel in the empty streets, while less traffic resulted in cleaner air. “This spring saw a 17 percent dip in CO2 emissions as people stayed home and didn’t drive…Inequity and systemic racism for many years have created “environmental mosaics of inequality” – pockets of greater ecological harm in poorer and more marginalized communities.”
The spring of 2020 showed us the promise of long-term systemic changes to our lifestyles. Maybe we need inoculation against a more insidious virus that continues to put the population and the planet in peril. Maybe we need to reconsider our relationship to the earth and each other. Or maybe this was just another rationalization to stall the inevitable.
One night, while looking through old vaccination records, I came across a letter my mother sent me during a particularly rough period in my life. I was facing an avalanche of anxiety over a difficult decision. It said simply: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s having the fear and doing it anyway.”
Not long after I found myself back at Walgreens, but this time on the other side of the window – waiting to be vaccinated. No one is immune to fear but there is courage and clarity on the other side.