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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

A pinch, a jab and a push. Just like that, it was over.

When I received my first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, there were no cameras or reporters. It came without any bit of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the early shots of politicians I saw on television or read about in the news.

After signing a stack of papers and flashing my hospital ID, I was led into an antechamber where a security guard peered at me through a small circular window. From there, he got an okay, and I was shepherded to a slightly larger room with a single clerk who sat behind a desk. She asked for those papers, my health card and for me to lower my mask to confirm my identity. I was momentarily stunned. I hadn’t willfully shown my face to a stranger since I was in New York city last March. I had this weird feeling of being naked. She was unfazed.

At a small cubicle, I watched the nurse’s hands move with deft skill. The ball of cotton and the bandage were laid out. A swab was soaked with alcohol and applied to my shoulder, the wetness quickly disappearing into a cool vapour. Lastly, into a needle, he drew up a fraction of a millilitre of clear, iridescent liquid, flicking the bubble of air from its point.

We made some small talk. But the truth is, I don’t remember any of it. I was fixed on the needle, my mind racing, trying to make sense of the scale, of how we got here. How something as infinitesimal as a virus could upend structures so large that they, too, existed beyond any conceivable scope: systems of health care, philosophies, economies and governments. How this pandemic is measured, ultimately, against its antidote: no more than a few drops in a vial the size of a thimble, engineered to be as valuable as anything on the planet.

Before I could untangle these layers of irony, the viral particles were flushed into my left shoulder. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said, in a wince. I lied. Later, it would feel as if someone brought a sledgehammer to my arm.

When I was moved into a larger waiting area, I finally took in where I was: a school gymnasium. A group of chairs was spread out on a basketball court, each six feet apart, placed over a square marked with green tape. I grabbed one near the sidelines. The room was silent.

Over the next 15 minutes, I sat and reflected. I wasn’t monitoring for side effects, which, in truth, I was asked to do, but trying to calm down: slow my heart, dry my palms, shallow out my breaths. Others scrolled on their phones or snapped selfies, adding to my ever-growing newsfeed of doctors, nurses and health care workers announcing their vaccinations. I hesitated. Then, taking my hand from my pocket, I decided to stay away from my phone and sink further into the moment.

These days, I rarely am the master of my own thoughts. Instead, I find myself dragged along. For me this became a moment to confront the grief that had piled over the past days, the past weeks, the past months, the past year.

I thought about the shuttered storefronts and stalled lives that lined my walk over. The eyes above the masks, the ones I rarely make contact with, recognizing that, during this long winter, what is not gracefully dying may be desperately trying to live. I thought about the ghosts of the young men and women who should have been flying up and down the court, trying for the shots they’re not able to take.

But, more than all of those things, I dwelled on my late grandfather. He wouldn’t have counted against the daily COVID-19 case rate. He didn’t have the coronavirus but his last memories of this life and my last of him were undeniably shaped by it. It’s why, after his death, rolling his silver kada around my wrist some nights, I have started paying a little attention to the numbers. They miss so many of the people that also matter.

“Why me?” I thought. Me, who has access to ample personal protective equipment; to tests which return in hours, not days, or weeks; to a job as a physician where my surroundings are controlled and where my livelihood would never be at stake in the event that I fell ill. Where is the vaccine for other essential workers: the grocery store clerks, the factory labourers, the letter carriers, the people who drive our buses and taxis and trucks and whose daily brushings with the virus go without notice and, for some, without choice. What about them? There will be many months before my family or my friends or my patients or the millions of others in our country who have sacrificed and taken precautions might be allowed the same protection that a certain calculus provided me.

The vaccines are not without flaws but they have offered us hope. Still, it does little to cure the time we lay in wait: where the pain of isolation greatens and the starvation for human connection grows unsatisfied; for the time when we can accept that invitation to come inside, to meet for dinner, to hug, not because we want it but because we need it.

Under the shadow of this wait for the vaccine, no one knows what lies ahead.

When my 15 minutes were up, I left and was told to return in three weeks for my second dose. When I stepped outside, the world felt different. I brought my mask to my face and made for home.

Because one thing I knew.

Soon, it would be getting dark.

Arjun V.K. Sharma lives in Toronto.