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ILLUSTRATION BY HANNA BARCZYK

With most sporting events on hold, the country is instead forced into another game, this one with rules more complicated than cricket and life-or-death consequences. It’s the vaccine waiting game.

I spend part of every day, here in Ontario, trying to find registration places for various elders who live here but whose families are scattered around the globe. Not even to find them actual appointments, you understand: Merely to find a registration website or phone line that isn’t crashing as if we’re trying to get tickets to see Beyoncé. I know I’m math-challenged, but you should not need an advanced degree in aerospace engineering in order to get a life-saving jab for an octogenarian.

In despair, I sometimes look at the reports coming out of Los Angeles (a city where, normally, you do not want to get sick unless your last name is DiCaprio). The city, where I used to live, is doing a pretty good job at this whole life-saving business: A half million people vaccinated, nine Vaccine Equity clinics to reach marginalized communities, huge mass jab sites set up at churches and universities and even on the hallowed ground of Dodger Stadium.

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The reasons for Canada’s slow rollout have been explained recently here in The Globe and Mail. What is less understandable – and what may fray our already gossamer trust in government – is the terrible, confusing messaging around vaccine delivery, at least in Ontario. Canadian governments have traditionally been very poor at the business of transparency, and worry more about backside-covering than public openness. A pandemic would have been a good time to reverse this practice; instead we got more obfuscation and jargon, even as a potentially crushing third wave looms.

The good news is that individual humans seem to be stepping up where government falls down. People are organizing in their communities to help elders navigate the ridiculously confusing maze of information. Family doctors and other health care providers are speaking up on behalf of their patients. My GP’s office diligently sends out what little information they have, though with the caveat that patients should not call, because they don’t know any more than we do. How can we blame the government, though? It’s not like it’s had a whole year to get its ducks in a row.

It’s heartening that vaccine queue-jumping has not become a widespread phenomenon, at least not yet. As Thomson Reuters noted, “Vaccine cheats appear to be relatively rare as nations prioritize shots for those most in need.” In the cases where it does happen, shaming quickly follows, whether it’s legislators in Lebanon or two women who donned wigs to look like seniors in Florida. The consequences for queue-jumping are severe, whether you’re a pension-fund chief executive who gets a jab in the United Arab Emirates, a casino boss who takes jabs meant for the high-risk in Northern Canada, or Peruvian lawmakers who jump the queue. Their jabs may prevent coronavirus, but offer no protection against public shaming and the job loss that follows.

It’s actually not surprising that the wealthy and powerful expect to receive better treatment in our plague year. Why should this time be any different from all the other times they’ve been able to buy their way to the front of the line – in education, health care, business? It must be a topsy-turvy world indeed, when their platinum cards are being rejected for once.

A friend in Los Angeles tells me that she received pressure, in her social circle, to jump the queue. Some of her wealthy neighbours found a loophole and have already been vaccinated. When she refused to join, they were shocked: Why would she believe that the rules, which had never applied to them, should apply now? Maybe they felt a bit of guilt, too, and were hoping to spread it around.

We’re all enrolled in a giant social experiment, and the equity framework of the vaccine rollout has been one of the most fascinating (and encouraging) elements. We knew, from the beginning, that money and social status could protect people from illness to some degree. We were not “all in it together.” Some people lived in care homes, or drove buses or taxis, or could not afford to take time off work. Other people could work from home (maybe their second home, or their yacht, or private island).

But when it came to deciding who got vaccinated, that pyramid of misery got turned upside down. Public-health officials, rightly, determined that the most vulnerable populations should be vaccinated first. The very elderly, who never come first otherwise. Those in long-term care, and in high-risk neighbourhoods, in homeless shelters and prisons. Workers who are forced tightly together, as in meat-processing plants, or who have to face the public in grocery stores – and often have to remind shoppers to put their masks on.

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It’s been a kind of wild experiment, where – for once – the poorest are actually receiving the best treatment, and those who can pay for it are shunned. Amazingly enough, this distribution based on need and public-health advice has been accepted without much complaint from the general public (unless you count Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s distaste for inmates being vaccinated before anyone else). People seem to be accepting that their place in line will come when it comes, even if they wish the information around this timing were not shrouded in a pea-soup fog.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to hope that this kind of field-levelling would be a model for justice once the plague is behind us. But wouldn’t it be nice if this is one thing we didn’t forget about this year.

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