Vaccines: the last frontier of discrimination...

Either they’re ‘essential’… or they’re not. And if we all agree that their service is, in fact, essential; then it follows that they can’t exactly be considered ‘non-essential’, only for the purposes of vaccination…

Up to a point, I suppose it was inevitable that a national vaccination programme would end up…  let’s just say, ‘differentiating’ between various categories of people.

For instance: nobody batted at eyelid when Health Minister Chris Fearne announced that the 80+ age-bracket would get their jabs before anyone else; or that healthcare workers would be among the first front-liners to get preferential treatment.

And while that may sound like a rather obvious thing to say, at this stage… well, the stage we are at is actually quite delicate, right now. So it may be worth taking a step back, and asking ourselves why we all took it so much for granted to begin with.

The way I see it, there are two fundamental principles at work here. The first is purely pragmatic – it is the reason why Casualties Departments, in every hospital in the world, will have differently-worded variations of the same notice: ‘Admissions are prioritised according to urgency… NOT waiting time.’

Like any other life-saving medical treatment, we all intuitively accept that a vaccine has to be administered to the most vulnerable categories first. And for slightly different (though equally pragmatic) reasons, we also understand that a machine has to first take care of itself, before taking care of others. Hence the urgent need for a fully-inoculated healthcare workforce, etc., etc.

But while these are logical considerations that require no justification whatsoever…. there is also another dimension: and it is slightly harder to define, because it touches upon the fundamental notions of that ineffable thing we call ‘social justice’.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate it, then, would be to simply invert the formula. Imagine, for argument’s sake – and just to keep party-politics out of it: imagine this took place in an imaginary country – that instead of prioritising the vulnerable or the front-liners, the Health Minister chose to bump himself, his family and all his friends to the top of the list (only to then extend the offer to ‘the highest bidder’)…

To say ‘there would have been an outcry’ would be an understatement: that sort of attitude is, in fact, an echo of Marie-Antoinette’s ill-fated ‘Let them eat cake’ moment, back in the 18th century. In other words, precisely the sort of thing that eventually tips the balance between popular disgruntlement, and open, violent revolution.

Of course, it is also the opposite of what actually happened here. But if I paint that scenario at all, it is only to bring home the point that this entire vaccination programme is – by virtue of its own processes – a quintessentially ‘political’ exercise. Not in any partisan sense, perhaps; but because, by definition, it inevitably raises high social expectations across the board… not just for protection against COVID-19; but also for a commitment to justice, fairness and plain common decency.

Besides: there is also a natural limit to the country’s tolerance and comprehension. No one in his right mind would object to fast-tracking the ‘obvious’ categories – the elderly, the immune-compromised, doctors, nurses, enforcement officers, etc. – but the further away you move from the epicentre of contagion… in other words, from the front line itself… the less ‘obvious’ these distinctions become.

For instance: while we all likewise accepted that ‘teachers and educators’ were added to the priority list – though there was already a little grumbling, here and there: attesting, perhaps, to how little those professions are valued locally – well, that is where the pool of our collective comprehension seems to suddenly dry up.

Anything beyond that (already narrow) definition of ‘front-liner’ becomes increasingly harder to justify. And just as people will accept being by-passed, in the vaccination queue, by genuine cases… they will react in justified anger (more so, in fact, than to most other injustices) when they see other, less-deserving cases being sneakily admitted through the backdoor.

This, it seems, is the point we have now reached, in the ongoing vaccination roll-out saga. The obvious priorities have now been addressed – and very successfully too, it must be said – which leaves us with all the other, as-yet unprioritized categories: each vying (with varying degrees of legitimacy) for what they perceive to be their rightful place in the vaccination hierarchy.

I need hardly add, then, that from a purely political perspective… it’s a minefield. And we all got an indication of just how explosive it can be, from a recent report that a construction company (of all unlikely candidates) may have been singled out for preferential treatment: to the exclusion of other self-styled ‘front-liners’ (namely, in this case, supermarket employees)…

And OK: some of the reactions may even have been slightly overblown, all things considered. On closer scrutiny, it seems we are only looking at one particular construction company: and not – as some have evidently interpreted the story – at the construction industry as a whole.

All the same, however: it does suggest that it is somehow possible to get yourself added to the vaccination ‘priority list’… and, very clearly, not on grounds of either ‘urgency’ or ‘front-liner status’, either.

At the very least, then, it amounts to evidence (however fleeting) of some kind of ‘priority list’ racket going on; and that, in turn, is precisely the sort of social injustice that people will feel far more keenly than the more ‘abstract’ offences, such as political corruption.

Not without good reason, either: for one thing, there is a difference between ‘embezzling public funds’… and actually endangering the lives of others. (Not unreasonably, people tend to attach a lot more emotional value to their own health and safety, than to the money they pay in taxes).

So in a sense, the public outcry is itself a fainter echo, of that other former echo, of Marie-Antoinette’s primordial hubris… not enough, perhaps, to precipitate an outright rebellion; but certainly enough to induce a deep sense of personal bitterness and resentment, at what is perceived (quite rightly) as an affront to the principles of social justice.

As for the fact that – of all the gin-joints in the world - it just happened to be a construction company that allegedly got bumped up the ladder… well, the most that can be said is that it (somewhat fortuitously) ties in with another widely-held perception out there: i.e., that the construction industry has been given ‘preferential  treatment’ – by this, and all preceding governments – in all sorts of other things, too… sometimes, with far more devastating effects than just a little unfairness in the  vaccination process.

Either way: overblown or otherwise, those reactions indicate just how volatile the current situation really is… and is likely to remain, for whatever is left of the vaccination process. And from this perspective: what I find more shocking is not so much that certain ‘undeserving categories’ may have got bumped up the list… but that other, worthier causes have not.

Those supermarket employees I mentioned earlier, for instance. In the case of teachers, it was universally acknowledged that their profession should be prioritised because: a) education is an essential service, and; b) the nature of the job itself involves close contact with a vast cross-section of society as a whole.

Is there any reason why any of that should not apply – even if, admittedly, slightly lower down the ladder – to supermarket employees, too?

I myself, over these past 12 or so months, can attest to just how ‘essential’ their service is, in the fight against COVID-19. Even if just in the sense that… well… I’m still alive, aren’t I? And I certainly wouldn’t be, is supermarkets were among the services that were shut down.

There are, after all, certain precautions that can be taken against a virus; but as far as I am aware, there is no way to protect yourself against dying of hunger. Indeed, even the simple fact that supermarkets are – and have been, from day one – on the ‘essential services’ list, seems to contradict their absence from the corresponding list of vaccination priorities.

To put that more simply: either they’re ‘essential’… or they’re not. And if we all agree that their service is, in fact, essential; then it follows that they can’t exactly be considered ‘non-essential’, only for the purposes of vaccination…

By the same token, however: supermarket attendants (alongside, naturally, other customers) are also among the very few categories of human being I have actually come into contact with, at any point over the past year. And just as they always ran the risk of catching COVID-19 from me, or any other customer… so, too, did we from them.

Certainly, we all ran a much greater risk from supermarkets, than from any amount of workers on a construction site. And this only means that – wherever they eventually get placed, in the list of priorities – they are clearly much closer to the actual front-line, than all but the most obvious of ‘front-liners’.

And this, ultimately, should be the sole deciding factor when it comes to drawing up any form of ‘priority list’, for the remainder of the vaccination process. Otherwise, the entire process itself will become just another frontier of discrimination, to add to all the others…