In the seminal “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that America’s greatness lies not in being more enlightened or stronger than other nations, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.
In other words, no nation is perfect. What makes America special is that we recognize this truth and have, throughout our history, demonstrated not only the ability but the willingness to repair these faults and, in doing so, we continue our pursuit of a “more perfect union.”
Got it? Great. Then let’s put that aside for a moment and we’ll come back to it.
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot. From the doctors and nurses working tirelessly to protect us from this threat to the teachers taking on twice their normal workload to ensure our children are safe, to the everyday folks whose acts of kindness and compassion have made our days bearable, the pandemic demonstrated the good people we can be.
It’s also shown us the challenges we still face, including the deep fault lines in our nation’s health care infrastructure.
COVID-19 has infected more than 16 million Americans and claimed more than 300,000 lives, and more deaths are predicted by the end of the year. That’s more Americans than died in both world wars combined. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has predicted that COVID-19 will kill more Americans every day than died in the Pearl Harbor attack or on 9/11.
Of course, this isn’t an abstract exercise for me. My 64-year-old mother was infected, as was my 43-year-old sister. Thankfully, both have recovered and are well, although after several months, my sister still hasn’t regained her sense of smell. So when we talk about COVID-19, its ramifications for all of us, its long-term consequences and the disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, it’s not philosophical for me — it’s personal.
That’s why I see the coming vaccine as a promise of hope. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
But as the conversation turns to vaccine distribution, I find that light darkened with concern. I worry that, once again, communities of color will fall into the broken fault lines of our health care system.
Let me be clear. I don’t expect this to be easy. From production to distribution to storage, I understand there are practical issues that must be addressed. I understand that “approved” is not the same thing as “available,” and we can talk about how we meet the early shortages with hard decisions about who’s at the front of the line. But we must not allow anyone to fall into the darkness of those fault lines. This vaccine must be accessible and affordable for all.
When an effective polio vaccine became available in 1955, it wasn’t a question of where you lived or whether or not you had insurance. Everyone got it. It wasn’t a matter of profit or market share; Dr. Jonas Salk didn’t even patent his innovation. Urban and rural schoolchildren alike were loaded into buses, driven to county health departments, and received the inoculation that saved their lives. How much did these children have to pay to be vaccinated? Nothing.
Of course, there are plenty who would argue, “That was then and this is now.” But anywhere in this country now, you can get a flu shot for free.
It’s just that simple. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to getting a COVID-19 vaccination. Profit should never stop us from stopping a plague. Still, I worry that communities will be overlooked — whether they be minority, poor, rural, incarcerated.
Let’s look at this practically: If two men were standing in front of you and one was hungry but the other was near starvation, who would you feed first? Or, if you had a nail in your right rear tire, would you change that one first? Imagine your roof leaked rainwater into your child’s bedroom. Yes, you probably need to re-shingle the whole roof, but where is the priority spot?
Everyone knows that poor, rural, minority and captive communities have been decimated by this pandemic and continue to face unprecedented infection and death rates. Ignoring them — either by delaying distribution or putting a cost to the vaccine — would not only worsen a historic injustice, it would prolong the pandemic and deepen the economic depression harming all of us.
It didn’t have to be this way. A strong, effective response from competent national leadership, including a real plan to address spikes in rural, poor and minority communities, might have flattened the COVID-19 curve months ago and saved countless lives. So, now it’s time to repair that fault — time for America to be great.
Yes, when it comes to health care workers, first responders, teachers and anyone else who has been on the front lines of this crisis from day one, I don’t think there’s any argument. They’ve been the glue holding us together and they are critical to moving us forward, so they absolutely should be at the front of the line for the vaccine.
Beyond that, we must look to communities that have been hit hardest. We must attack the virus where it is strongest. It’s not only the moral thing to do, it’s the only thing we do if we want to reach that light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the only way we truly can be great.