Going From Vaccine Envy to Vaccine Guilt

Getting my first shot, from a dancing nurse

Recently I joined the ranks of the vaccinated. A great relief for an octogenarian, which I have been for quite some time. But, as has been or will be true for most citizens, about the time I rolled my sleeve back down I was beset by other emotions: guilt, angst and a nameless fear for my fellow citizens and the country at large. Not unlike the feeling one has when walking back to a warm home for dinner on a rainy day – and passing a motionless figure huddled in a doorway.

America is facing yet another division between the haves and have nots, the entitled and the shoved aside, but this one is a division between life and death. Here’s how that plays out, from the vantage point of one newly-vaccinated. I am also among the Haves: white, upper middle class, living in an expensive assisted-living facility. We the elderly are, of course, among the most vulnerable. Many of us have underlying health problems; all of us have the problem of being old. Which means we tend to die faster and in greater numbers if we get covid-19. It is admittedly scary to be old in a deadly pandemic. But should I be first in line? Should I have been ahead of my granddaughter’s teacher? Already my granddaughter has lost the experience of a normal senior year in high school. My friends’ grandchildren have lost other school years. How can we possibly weigh the safety of our own health against the hopes we have for our grandchildren’s future? If we simply concentrated on getting every teacher vaccinated and schools made as safe as possible, this might give our children and grandchildren at least a modicum of educational normalcy. Most of us would at least give that some thought.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

But then again. Why shouldn’t essential workers be at the front of every line? Those driving the buses, cleaning the streets, making it possible at least for our cities and country to function. The janitors and cooks who make it possible for medical personnel to function. The vast majority of these bottom-level workers are Black or brown, so the vaccine divide feeds straight into the ongoing divide of racial and economic inequality. Even given the technological challenges of many seniors, most of us in the middle class at least have the skills and resources with which to check around for vaccine availability. But should that put us in line ahead of the less-advantaged who make getting in line possible? What about childcare workers? Millions of parents depend on these generally underpaid women (they’re almost always women) to look after their children. If childcare workers are somewhere far back in the line, their own lives are in jeopardy and the ripples of disrupted lives among their small clients and wider families are incalculable.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to prioritize vaccine distribution by age drew an immediate outcry from the disability community. How can this sizable demographic, which seems perpetually destined to fight one battle for survival after another, not be at the front of the vaccination line? Mobility problems beset many in this community; others have compromised immune systems that make them dangerously vulnerable. My lungs are compromised from being old, but they weren’t helped any by those years I smoked in my teens and twenties. Considered in this light, it seems hardly fair that I should be in line before my disabled neighbor.    

It is also hard not to take the vaccine guilt business onto the global level, a peripheral part of the giant divide. America First isn’t going to cut it with this virus. I am enormously relieved to be vaccinated, and now I want my friends and neighbors – all of them, rich, poor, Democrats, Republicans to get vaccinated just as fast as humanly possible. If we reach herd immunity in the U.S., though, and the virus continues to rage across Africa, its mutant cousins are coming for us. Offering support for getting the vaccine into Ethiopian arms is less an altruistic wish than a matter of self-preservation. Would I have given up my dose for someone in Ethiopia? Or for anyone in the above demographics? Probably not. But this should not excuse me from wrestling with what is a national, universal ethical dilemma.  


  1. We who are in our 8th decade and closest to the time when we will die anyway should not be the first to be vaccinated. It should be the youngest, most productive who should go first. Not us. We are past our productive years; past our prime, past our “sell by” date.
    We are done. We can be done. We should be the last group to be vaccinated.

    But–it’s all about the money. Because we are old and most likely to die of complications of the coronavirus, when we go to the hospital with our Covid-19, all the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, ventilators, machines, technology, medications, treatments, etc. incur high costs trying to save us. So the decision is to vaccinate those who are likely to cost the most money when they get the virus.

    It’s too bad we would go to the hospital with our Covid in the first place, but most of us don’t want to die, fear dying, don’t believe we will die, and will do everything possible to live.
    But–as we have seen so many times on the news in the past year, there are some things worse than dying….

    1. I so agree with you that geezers shouldn’t be at the top of the list – – or anywhere near. (Still, I didn’t turn it down.) If there’s a way to break through to people about the many things worse than death, I’d surely like to figure it out.

  2. Wonderful, thorough article! With a feeling of great relief I’m going to be vaccinated on Wednesday. But you can be sure I’ll be thinking about your article.

    Thank you, Fran!

    1. We just need to keep doing what we can – – – and keep getting vaccinated! So glad you will be. I think this should mean that in another few months we could hug.

    1. I think we have a teeny bit more of a national strategy than the no-national-strategy days, and am hopeful that will help. Plus, the new J&J will be nice if it is okayed. Stay masked & distanced & well over there.

  3. Great story!
    Over 80? Have no regrets! Sadly nurses I’m working with have yet to get a shot as they’re unable to get an appointment, these are ones working in home care. I also work with nurses who will NOT get one as they believe ‘they’re putting a GPS chip in you” I said well then they can at least find me in the woods if I wander too far.
    I hope this generation of youngsters gets a redo on this stage of life at some point 💪👯‍♀️✨

    1. Well, being in line ahead of a nurse working home care DEFINITELY makes me feel guilty. Don’t know what to do about the GPS chips, though. Unless they might somehow start listening to a different TV network.

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