News Update

Opinion: I got vaccinated — but my family can't, and the guilt is killing me

Melissa MahtaniMelissa Mahtani
I do have underlying conditions, but I’ve been able to manage them and I’m very aware that there are others out there — teachers, health care workers, those over 60 — who need it more than I do. As more and more of those types of people did get vaccinated, I was still planning on waiting until everyone could get the shot and was hopeful that my family in Zambia would also be able to get their doses at that time.
What spurred me to get the shot was the loss of one of our closest family friends last month, who I consider my uncle. Originally from Yorkshire, England, he had lived in Zambia — like many other expats in the former British colony — for most of his life. When he got coronavirus, even being around 80 years old couldn’t secure him a spot in an overcrowded hospital, so he was turned away. That led to him having a stroke and eventually being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) where he lived out his final days, on a ventilator.
Had he been in England, or any other rich nation, he likely would have received treatment immediately, or got the vaccine, and would possibly still be alive today. The tragedy was made worse by the fact that his family and friends couldn’t say goodbye in person due to him having Covid — like countless others around the world who have been robbed of real goodbyes to their loved ones.
Losing him was hard. The reality that this could be my parents, and I wouldn’t be able to see them or say goodbye if they got the virus, was worse. Thousands of miles away, would the last time I had seen them be the absolute last? That haunting thought made me realize that I needed to take the vaccine that was offered to me here, so I could be one step closer to being able to see my parents if disaster struck. But still, I felt racked with guilt over being eligible to take it when they, who need it more than I do due to their age and more severe underlying conditions, could not.
My husband made the appointment for me to get my first dose and I immediately cried, feeling like I was being selfish. On the way to the appointment, I was distraught at the fact that we live in such an unfair world, where someone like me gets to take it and thousands of others don’t — and may not have access to it for a very long time. Don’t get me wrong, am I grateful I got a vaccine? Of course, I am. Everyone needs to get vaccinated. I just wish everyone could.
We flattened the curve. Now let's end the pandemicWe flattened the curve. Now let's end the pandemic
While my family was so happy for me — the news even led them to open a special bottle of wine to celebrate — I was crying my eyes out with guilt, and overcome with a sense that I had somehow been chosen to live and they hadn’t. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but even though I was one step closer to being able to see them, I felt and still feel like I will somehow never see them again. Rationally I know that’s not true, but I can’t shake the feeling. I would give anything to be able to give up my dose for them to get it. I feel so sad and guilty that I got to take a vaccine and they don’t. The worst part is not knowing when they will.
According to Our World in Data there are currently 67 nations around the world with no access — none — to vaccines. Do their citizens not count? Doesn’t every human life count? What makes my life more valuable than theirs? Why isn’t every pharmaceutical company rushing to get every single life on planet earth vaccinated for a disease that has shown us it can infect anyone, regardless of citizenship, age, race or status in society? Shouldn’t the treatment for the virus be equally as broad? No one in the world can be safe when others are still at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Didn’t the global pandemic teach us that?
The pace of the vaccines’ rollout largely depends on pharmaceutical giants. Backed by the governments that funded them, these companies are thus far reluctant to share their patents — which, critics argue, effectively amounts to choosing profit over human life.
Instead, they have contributed to a global vaccine-sharing program called COVAX, aimed at reducing vaccine inequality. COVAX uses donations from governments and multilateral institutions to buy vaccines for poorer nations that can’t afford contracts with major drug companies. It’s a great start but getting enough supplies has been difficult, in part because wealthier countries ordered more than they need.
The US needs a Marshall Plan for global vaccinationsThe US needs a Marshall Plan for global vaccinations
Sharing patents could help. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, recently said, AstraZeneca is “the only company that has committed to not profiting from its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic” noting the significant contribution the company has made to vaccine equity, “by licensing its technology to several other companies.” This includes companies in Korea and India that are producing more than 90 per cent of COVAX-distributed vaccines.
I’m not suggesting that patent sharing would be a magic wand or that every country has the capacity or facilities to make vaccines. But in the face of a global pandemic, we should all do everything possible to end it.
Yet earlier this month, richer World Trade Organization (WTO) members blocked an effort from more than 80 developing nations to waive patent rights to increase production of Covid-19 vaccines for poor countries. They argue that upholding intellectual property rights encourages innovation. Thomas Cueni, the director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, told the AP that lifting protections on patents is “a very bad signal to the future. You signal that if you have a pandemic, your patents are not worth anything.”
Not sharing vaccine data or doing more to share vaccines, hurts rich countries as much as poor ones. As Dr. Tedros also pointed out: “A me-first approach might serve short-term political interests, but it is self-defeating and will lead to a protracted recovery with trade and travel continuing to suffer … as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it has more opportunities to mutate and potentially undermine the efficacy of vaccines everywhere. We could end up back at square one.”
As we in the US receive our vaccines, we cannot forget what led to this birthright. America, for example, is a land of immigrants. That means the people born here owe their freedom and privilege to others who risked their lives to come here, much like the thousands at the southern border are doing now. Where are the pro-life voices in crises like this? They fervently make the case against abortion, but I haven’t heard them raise their voice as loudly for their fellow citizens in other countries dying. Do those lives not matter?
Ironically a global pandemic that should have made us realize we’re all the same, with the same concerns and fears and susceptibility to disease, has perhaps made us more selfish, putting fears for ourselves and our loved ones ahead of our concern for strangers across the world. The love and concern I feel for my family in Zambia is just as valuable as the love and concern an American feels for their American family or a European for theirs.
Every single person needs to get vaccinated for all of us to collectively be safe. Until that happens, we must remain thoughtful and compassionate, and recognize our own privilege to have the resources to protect ourselves from this virus. Covid-19 has shown us that it doesn’t discriminate, and neither should the antidote.
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