We Had a Vaccine the Whole Time

UPI Photo/Vincent Laforet/Pool

A native of coastal North Carolina, I am no stranger to hurricanes and the destruction that they can bring. Within only a week of the first warning signs, a hurricane can make landfall with enough power to wash away entire towns, leaving thousands homeless, stranded, and dead. Even though we can’t prevent hurricanes from forming, a Vox article from 2017 points out a common fallacy that occurs in the media when covering hurricanes and their victims — a lack of accountability. Although at first it may seem like no one is to blame for disasters such as Katrina, it’s not hard to pin some level of responsibility on the real estate developers who built on floodplains, the lawmakers who allowed for such a dangerous move, the redlining that funneled disadvantaged and majority people of color into those houses, and the botched rescue response that left them stranded on rooftops for days. Once you consider the human factors, it becomes clear that plenty more than an “act of God” was to blame for the massive death toll in New Orleans.

Last Saturday, my father, a pediatric hospitalist, received his first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Watching the video of him sitting atop an exam table while a nurse inoculated him with one of the first doses of the fastest-developed vaccine in history made me a little emotional; it seemed to signal the first glimpse of light at the end of a tunnel that is rapidly approaching one year in length. But when I pass by crowded bars, flee tightly-packed supermarket aisles, or furl my brow at social media posts featuring dank rooms and bare faces, I get angry — because we had a vaccine the whole time.

My father receiving his first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 Vaccine (12/19/2020)

I don’t have to tell you what that vaccine was. You know it from the first month of the pandemic: strict social distancing, mask wearing, and government aid and guidance. But something happened. The rules of the quarantine crept up from strict guidelines to “wear a neck gaiter on your chin while Black Friday shopping” as cases and deaths exploded across the country, reaching a volume that dwarfed that of any other developed country on the planet.

We need to ask ourselves why we as Americans uniquely refused, like spoiled children, to be told “no.” Some attribute this behavior to a culture of individual freedom and liberty, and while I somewhat agree, I think our selfish psychological tendencies were compounded — and enabled by — selfish and ignorant partisan politics that saw our very own president deny the efficacy of masks, and numerous government officials break the very rules they advocated for. It’s not just that we failed the marshmallow experiment, it’s that there was no adult in the room to yank us away from eating the entire bag before dinner.

Of course I don’t want to be forced to order grocery deliveries while confined to my home for months or face prison time for breaking quarantine; I’m advocating for a collective public service à la John F. Kennedy, not Mao Zedong. To some extent, I can’t blame lenient parents trying to please a despondent child with cabin fever or small business owners bending unenforced rules to make ends meet; I blame the policies that enabled such behavior. Without a collective conscience we require incentives, support, and even discipline, but even mild measures seem to sound alarm bells for everyday Americans, not to mention the maskless “patriots” in my local Target claiming government overreach.

A mask mandate would find itself safely in the “slight inconvenience” territory of government regulation, a turf that stretches far beyond into “unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.” Even so, we still seem to be lacking in strong leaders with convictions to stress and stand behind these unpopular measures. The year has proven that no longer can we allow our lawmakers to provide vapid answers, nor froth at the mouth waiting to catch them out on any concrete policy stances, and it’s not too late to start now. We could become like New Zealand or Taiwan and forgo the Friday night house party in favor of giving our children the chance to start school in a more normal environment this fall, or we can continue to dance through life to the beat of a rising death toll.

As vaccines continue to roll out, you may feel inclined to see this historic scientific accomplishment as a rope being thrown down to lift us off the roof of a flooded house and fly us to the Astrodome, but 315,000, one-in-one-thousand Americans — and their families — want you to remember that we could have reinforced the levees. In the same way that hurricane death tolls are inflated by immoral building practices and lackluster rescue efforts, the mishandling of this pandemic has directly cost people their lives — as many as Katrina every 12 hours or so. These are people we can’t pretend were destined to be killed by a force of nature, but died in part because of timid politicians and a selfish culture of indulgence. We had a vaccine the whole time, one whose side effects come not as arm soreness and fatigue, but as collectivism, a side-effect that proved to be too serious.

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Sellers Hill

Sellers Hill

Sellers Hill is freelance writer, photographer, and member of the Harvard Class of 2025 from Wilmington, NC.