Vaccine selfies, a hot new mid-pandemic social media trend, are offering us glimpses of a future in which we can hug, share dinners, and leave the house without wondering, “Is today the day I catch a deadly virus?”
But the joy of seeing somebody secure the lifesaving COVID vaccine can be accompanied by creeping, thornier feelings — fear of missing out (“vaccine FOMO”), frustration over the United States’ scattershot vaccine rollout policies (“How did they get the vaccine?!?”), and, in the most elemental sense, jealousy. Because right now, we don’t have enough vaccines and most of us face a stressful, months-long wait until we can get the jab and share our own vaccine selfies.
In theory, the vaccine selfie has public health utility. Vaccine hesitancy remains a tall hurdle between now and when enough Americans have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. As medical professionals have argued, we need to normalize and incentivize getting vaccinated as much as we can. Social media is a natural platform to leverage in the fight against vaccine hesitancy. The thinking here is that the more people see others in their orbit getting vaccines, the more likely they’ll get theirs too.
This made sense during the start of the vaccine rollout, when frontline health care workers and elected officials with community reach were sharing vaccine selfies. And it’ll make sense later, when COVID vaccines are available to the wider public. But now the rollout is messier. Although the elderly are prioritized for vaccine access, vaccines also have been going to less vulnerable people who scored early access to vaccines through occupational or social connections. In some states, the vaccine rollout is accelerating. Elsewhere — which includes Massachusetts — it’s sputtering.
The realities of the vaccine rollout pose a tough question about vaccine selfies at the moment. Will they bring us together as we aspire for mass vaccination, or will they leave people feeling sidelined during the deadly and terrifying final chapter of the pandemic? After all, the pandemic has been a devastating affirmation of all the structural inequities that have allowed some of us to hunker down in safety while hundreds of thousands have gotten sick and died. After a year of death, grief, and loneliness, watching someone receive the vaccine is like watching them ascend to a more rarefied plane of existence.
Eventually, millions more of us will be able to revel in that existential peace of mind too. But in the interim, while most of us wait, many more people will become sick and many of them will die.
Anyone who receives a vaccine early has to decide whether broadcasting their good fortune to their world will spark more solidarity or pain. Will it convert some vaccine skeptics or mainly serve to torment those who will have to wait longer? As a healthy young-ish person, I won’t be getting jabbed until spring or later. But if I were rubbing an injection site on my deltoid right now, feeling sniffly as my immune system cranked out COVID antibodies, I’d put my vaccine card in a drawer.
Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward.