Like most tragedies, the onset of the pandemic produced a call for unity with sentiments ensuring “we’re all in this together.”
Every outlet, from the daily news to hand-made window signs, offered appreciation for those on the front line: health care workers, grocery store clerks, public transportation workers, and truck drivers. My father, a truck driver, and my mother, a seamstress, suddenly became heroes.
My father goes to work every day delivering construction materials and my mother paused her Etsy sales to make masks for her local hospital. I feared, especially early on, that my father’s company would begin laying off workers. As that threat seemed less imminent, it was replaced by the fear that he would be exposed to the virus.
He incorporated a myriad of routines into his day to avoid exposure. He wears two masks, maintains a 6-foot distance from others, wears gloves, washes his work clothes every day, and washes his hands regularly. He has, so far, been lucky and stayed healthy.
As we collectively celebrate that a vaccine has been developed, it is also necessary to look critically at the rollout.
In the effort to reopen schools, the umbrella of who qualifies as an educator has been stretched beyond essential in-building personnel. Curriculum writers, recruiters, and board members, people who are not required to be in the building and easily fulfill their duties from home, are receiving the vaccine.
Various government departments, which immediately shut down in March and function under entirely remote models with no plan to resume in-office work, are being offered the vaccine. Moreover, spouses and family members of government officials are also offered vaccines.
Hospitals were, understandably, among the first to receive the vaccine. However, hospitals are going beyond their frontline workers and vaccinating public relations departments, administrators, and board members.
This trend in the vaccine rollout tips the scales to the wealthy. People who do not need the vaccine are exploiting administrative loopholes to immunize themselves against the virus, leaving the blue-collar workers at risk.
These workers: truck drivers, grocery store clerks, public transportation workers and more are not even specified on the tiers of the vaccine rollout. As those with means and connections jump the line, the people who never stopped working must wait, likely many months, for their age group.
The early celebration of these professions has faded, and the notion of “we’re all in this together,” has been replaced with the reality that these people’s lives are not considered valuable. It is a clear exclusion of blue-collar workers who are often people whose livelihood depends on being able to go to work every day.
In a mad rush to be vaccinated and return to normal, the worst part of selfish human nature shows. We so desperately want to hug our loved ones, see people outside of a computer screen, and eat in a restaurant that we forget that the threat is a daily reality for so many in our society.
The rollout points to a pervasive and troubling wealth inequality in America. We demand that shelves are stocked, infrastructure run, and supplies for home renovations be delivered, yet we are unwilling to protect the people who meet these needs. Wealth and social status have become a prerequisite for vaccine distribution.
It has been a long year. I want to be in a classroom with my classmates, I want to meet my nephew born last March, I want to get married in the company of my friends and family, but most of all I do not want to worry about my dad going to work every day.
If we have any hope of being better after this pandemic, we must confront the deep wealth inequalities that shape our society. If we are “all in this together,” an important first step is to create a vaccine rollout that is based on exposure.
We must ensure safety and restore value to the working-class heroes who have risked their lives every day of this pandemic simply by doing their jobs.
Colleen E. Putzel is a graduate student at the Joan B. Kroc School for Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.