Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a Toronto-based writer and author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.
Pregnancy in a pandemic has its pros and cons. On the plus side, the fact that you cannot go out for sushi never comes up, what with there not being dine-in restaurants open to begin with. You don’t get asked why you’re not drinking at a social event, because parties are on hold indefinitely.
The minuses? Everything else. COVID-19 protocols mean no bringing a partner to ultrasounds or doctor’s appointments, and no snacks in the waiting room. There’s the extra isolation to anticipate in the months after giving birth: no in-person library baby time and no visits from extended family. Then there’s the whole thing with vaccines, or rather the lack thereof.
Initially, because COVID-19 vaccines had not been studied in pregnancy, advice was to be wary of getting one. I, well into my second trimester, was not wary – it seemed a miracle these vaccines existed at all – but nor was I optimistic about being offered one. Then the advice changed. Pregnancy was no longer a reason you might be refused a vaccine, but rather a risk factor that allowed you to preregister. At the beginning of April, I did just that, feeling an incalculable sense of relief while doing so. I knew it wasn’t an appointment, but figured I’d be contacted soon. Alas.
What followed were a series of shifts in vaccine prioritization in Ontario, pushing the pregnancy risk category further down the line. Once news broke that Toronto’s richest areas were more vaccinated than its poorest, a new policy was created, designating certain postal codes as “hot spots,” and giving them priority for universal eligibility. I told myself that my own middle-income area being merely hot-spot-adjacent was a reason for gratitude. I don’t have a car, and rely on public transit (where mask-wearing is spotty and officially not enforced) to get to doctor’s appointments, but can otherwise stay near home. Those working in hospitals, warehouses, supermarkets and so on ought to be vaccinated before me. Obviously.
But it seemed less obvious that I should be months behind healthy twentysomethings in posh neighbourhoods, classified for mysterious reasons as eligible postal codes. And when the 40 and up age group became eligible for pharmacy vaccines, I wondered whether my 37-year-old, pregnant, anxious self was really that much less of a priority.
As priorities kept shifting, it became harder to see the Ontario rollout as a coherent attempt at equitable distribution that, sure, might let some individuals fall through the cracks, but on the whole made sense. It started to look like an inequitable, disorganized mess.
What happened in Ontario during the pandemic where pregnancy is concerned fits within a pattern of so-called women’s issues getting deprioritized as progressive causes. Yes, many pregnant people fall into other risk categories, including mental and physical health conditions associated with pregnancy itself. But shouldn’t pregnancy be enough? When reciting the (too-long) list of unjust features of pandemic policy, shouldn’t this one rank?
Many people, myself included, underestimated the seriousness of pregnancy as a risk factor. But as evidence mounted that pregnant people and their babies faced severe risks from COVID-19 and hospital wards started seeing an increase in pregnant patients, authorities were slow to react. Early last week Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province didn’t have plans to further prioritize pregnant people for vaccination, but added an ambiguous caveat about individuals’ physicians making the ultimate determination.
On Friday, the province changed tack and announced that pregnant people are now a priority for vaccination. This does not equal appointments – when I called the booking hotline, I learned there were none in Toronto that were accessible by public transit, and am still figuring out how to get to the closest appointment. But it is a world beyond where things had been, where individual pregnant patients were strategizing about how to book the appointments their medical providers knew they needed, and getting through only if the stars aligned.
Pregnancy counts. But I now wonder what took me so long to realize this. Was I so busy telling myself all the legitimate reasons I should not be first that I’d reconciled myself to being last? After a lifetime of socialization as female, and a year spent hearing about how the worst thing a woman could be was a complaining “Karen,” I’d refused to assert myself, in a situation where that was not just a legitimate thing for me to do personally, but also politically.
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