I’m not sure what I was expecting after receiving my second COVID vaccine shot. Would the skies part in glory? Would flights of angels sing me a tune? Maybe some dancing Grateful Dead bears on the hood of my car? “One way or another, this darkness has got to give…”
What happened was this: We rolled through a long line of cars to get into the vaccination site, parked at the direction of a smiling National Guardsman who was clearly enjoying her role in the endeavor, and waited. After about 15 minutes, a woman in PPE gear with a nametag that read “Dr. Nancy” came to my window and asked if I was ready. Yes, I replied. Yes, yes, oh hell yes.
Sleeve rolled up, needle went in, plunger went down, needle came out, and I hit the hazard lights for the obligatory 15-minute side-effects wait. Those minutes passed to the sound of Simon & Garfunkel on my radio, and I will long remember surveying that field packed with parked cars while quietly singing along to, “They’ve all come to look for America…”
… and just like that, I had joined the growing millions in becoming a tiny part of scientific history. I still have two weeks to go before the full protections kick in, but even as I sat there counting my heartbeats in the low throb of the injection site, I felt my fear — my ocean of dread, my yearlong companion, my inescapable shadow — puddling out of me and slowly washing away.
“Grateful” is not a large enough word. It took a ruthlessly lethal pandemic combined with the deliberate indifference of authority to inspire it, but the science behind these vaccines represents the kind of forward leap that has only happened a few times in history. “Now, with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the technology has been tested and it has succeeded,” writes Kesley Piper for Vox. “That success is likely to drive development of tons more mRNA vaccines targeting other diseases.”
There is a hollowness to the moment for me, however. I’m aware that I’m taking pleasure from survival when half a million of my fellow countrymen are gone forever; I feel selfish. I’m glad I didn’t get sick, and I worked very hard not to get sick, but how much of all that is luck? This thing could have had me as easily as picking an apple from an orchard, despite all my precautions.
There is, as ever, the rage. It did not have to be this way, and the authors of this misery are currently huddled down in Florida trying to game plan how to smash their way back into power, all the while turning a buck every which way they can. The negligent homicides of hundreds of thousands of people, the infection of and perhaps permanent harm done to millions more, goes unpunished to this day. It is a stone in my stomach I cannot sick up, and so long as it remains there, I will know no peace.
There is also very much this: It is not over yet by any measure. On the day I was vaccinated for the second time, there were 73,200 new cases of COVID reported in the U.S. The more virulent B.1.1.7 variant that emerged from Britain is now the dominant strain — not the dominant variant, the dominant strain — of COVID in this country. A fourth wave of infections is well underway because of this, and states like Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and New York are getting clobbered with new cases.
In India and Brazil, the virus is running rampant. These kinds of mass COVID petri dishes are ripe for the emergence of new and more virulent strains, some of which could very well be capable of defeating our miraculous vaccines. To our immediate north, Canada has reached Level Four on infections, the highest measurement, and the CDC recommends no one travel there without being fully vaccinated. In Vancouver, the entire Canucks NHL hockey team is under quarantine after 25 players and coaches tested positive. That’s basically the entire team.
Because of all that, it feels too early for any kind of substantive What It All Means navel-gazing. In this moment, though, I feel strangely like a survivor from the Titanic bobbing in a lifeboat in the dark North Atlantic night. The analogy is apt if you imagine that doomed ship as an allegory for the nation, a gilded behemoth encrusted with the wealthy elite, while below in steerage sat the poorest passengers, who bore the brunt of the iceberg’s wrath.
COVID was our iceberg, and it exacted a murderous price, particularly among those who exist in the steerage quarters of our modern economy. I cannot avoid counting myself — vaccinated and alive — among the privileged, and I am unavoidably roiled with the queasy seasick sense that so many others deserve this more than I do.
Bollocks, I try to tell myself. Self-indulgent tripe. The vagaries of fate are no more mine to control than the tide that washed over Canute’s feet. Every medical professional I know is adamant: No one should feel guilty about getting vaccinated, because the more people get the vaccine, the closer we come to a possible end to this nightmare. I have these entirely valid sentiments playing on repeat in my head, but it is hard. It is hard. This has been a long, bleak passage, and the end is not yet in sight.
So here I sit in my lifeboat, Band-Aid on my arm, watching this awesome and terrible thing get cracked open like an egg by its own blundering incompetence, watching as it breaks in half and the lights go out, watching as it is swallowed by a frigid midnight sea, watching for sign of the rescue boats, and wondering what comes next.