A few weeks after the first rounds of vaccines were slowly making their way into the arms of essential workers and healthcare professionals, a friend told me a story that has lodged itself firmly in my craw and won’t leave. Apparently, a friend of my friend’s friend was at a Walgreens in Los Angeles, where they heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that anyone who wanted the vaccine could get it right then and there because the doses in question were set to expire. The person in question got the vaccine, even though they were not supposed to, per the labyrinthine and unnecessarily confusing vaccine rollout protocols, and was able, presumably, to live their life moving forward with a small amount of hope.
Similar stories of people being in the right place at the right time bubbled up as the vaccine became more widely available. In January, hundreds of people lined up at the Brooklyn Navy Terminal after a WhatsApp message circulated saying that there were over 400 doses available that needed to be used. A friend of a friend’s sister walked into a clinic, got the vaccine, and no one checked to see what she did for a living. These examples, which now circulate like mythology, are outliers but serve as a useful thought exercise for what one might do if they found themselves in the same scenario. Is it really “jumping the line” if you’re in the right place at the right time? Or is it just being pragmatic and a tiny bit selfish, seizing the opportunity because the opportunity is right there, in your face, and you’d be a fool to waste it?
Following these lines of personal inquiry to their logical conclusions is a private exercise, a moral conversation best left to group chats and late-night reveries before drifting off to fitful, mediocre slumber. But while these average citizens who have essentially won the 2020 equivalent of the lottery are contemplating whether or not to cash out, a lot of rich people are using their means to cut the line by doing whatever the hell they want.
With the onus of responsibility placed on the individual, it is unsurprising that the rich have found ways to flout the crisis, and now that there’s an end in sight, are trying to buy their way to the front of the line. There’s a marked difference between an average citizen debating this moral quandary and happening into an early vaccination by chance, and rich people doing what they can to get ahead because they think they’re better than anyone else. A Vancouver-based casino magnate and his wife chartered a private plane to the heart of Yukon territory, to Beaver Creek, a small community populated mostly by members of the White River Nation. Posing as motel employees, the couple got vaccinated, but raised the suspicions of authorities when they reportedly asked for a ride to the airport. The CEO and COO of CoreCivic, a company that manages and operates prisons, got their shot, much to the chagrin of those who saw the photo on Twitter, rightfully pointing out that those doses are two fewer doses for frontline workers at the prisons they manage.
Other stories of line jumpers, like this compendium from the Los Angeles Times, published at the beginning of January, are galling not because of the privilege exerted by those lucky enough to get vaccinated now, but because of the sheer amount of disorganization that has categorized this rollout.
“There’s a gross amount of fraud,” a Los Angeles Fire Department employee told a woman in scrubs, who had proof she was a healthcare worker, as she checked in for her appointment at the Crenshaw Christian Center. “We have people throwing street temper tantrums because they’re not getting their way, and it’s worked for them in the past.”
For the wealthy and those otherwise normally accustomed to getting their way by throwing money at the problem, the fact that they are at the bottom of the pile now, when the death toll is nearing 500,000, is surely infuriating. It’s also pointless to say that jumping the line is not what any of us should be doing. The strangers and acquaintances who managed to get the vaccine before it was their turn were all doing so because the vaccines in question were going to be thrown away. But the moral question of what to do if you find yourself in a situation where the opportunity presents itself is still valid. Skipping the line by waltzing to the front of it with a bag of cash, leaving senior citizens and beleaguered nurses in your wake, is morally reprehensible and wrong. But I don’t quite know if getting the jab when the jab is available to you, because of happenstance is, too. There’s a difference between forging paperwork that says you’re an essential worker and being in the right place at the right time, but what anyone chooses to do in that situation is a private decision and one that they’ll have to live with, forever.