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Posted on April 26, 2021 at 4:06 PM

by Arthur Caplan, PhD

Do Americans have any real sense of what it means to be an ‘essential’, worker who therefore should be first in line for Covid vaccinations?  The answer, based on the rocky rollout of vaccines in different states, is we don’t have a clue.

There has been a good deal of handwringing and sniping about constant cheating clouding America’s vaccine rollout.  As vaccine access was expanded beyond the elderly and the health care workforce to include ‘essential workers’ stories appeared of people lying about their age, medical status, citizenship, residency, occupation and working conditions in order to finagle their way ahead of others who were patiently waiting their turn.  

Just as bad as cheating was the misunderstanding of who really ought to have gone first. This was a murky mess that reflected our national unwillingness to admit that one group is economically more important than another.  In America discussions of class are really difficult in a country willing to talk about race all day and night.

Uber drivers, county clerks, UPS delivery people, Amazon warehouse workers, bankers, grocery clerks, pro athletes, farmhands, IT techs, aerobics instructors, bus drivers, barbers, clergy, strippers and teachers all claimed essential status.  I did an informal survey over the past six weeks of 30 adults I ran across in my Connecticut town.  29 said they were essential including the guy running my retirement fund. Only one did not—a bank teller who pointed glumly at the automatic teller machine gunning for her job.

The loftiest media outlets did no better in shedding light on essentiality.  The NY Times complained in a March 25 story that a business executive, George Yancopoulos and his family, had received early access last March, 2020 to then scarce Covid-19 testing because his company, Regeneron, had “longstanding ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo”.  The Times, in a tone of quiet fury, noted that, “The tests given to Dr. Yancopoulos and his family were the first known examples of the state offering the hard-to-get tests to someone with business interests with the state.”

Well, I sure don’t want business executives using their connections with governors to grab scarce Covid resources.  Except for the fact that the 61-year-old Yancopoulos is the Chief Scientific Officer at Regeneron and was and is deeply involved in trying to find antibodies that can treat Covid.  He wanted to get tested and his family tested as well to find out if he could go to work or would need to quarantine.  Frankly, I would personally have delivered the tests to his doorstep since he was arguably one of the most essential workers in the world at that time.  If anyone is essential during a pandemic it is the scientists working on tests, antibodies and vaccines and those who help manufacture and deliver them.  Apparently, many of those now working on vaccine development, manufacturing and delivery are still not vaccinated!

America did not do well with setting priorities for vaccination.  Essential status made us ask uncomfortable questions about personal importance and our relative contribution to society which reveal class differences which we hate to acknowledge.  Covid has taught us a lot about ourselves. The lesson has not been morally very pretty.

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