Vaccine Privilege in the United States

By: Rosie

We all know that one of the most controversial topics on everyone’s minds right now is vaccines. At the University of Oregon, we have begun in person classes again at full capacity, and many people are under the impression that the COVID-19 vaccine will be required for all on campus students. However, the university is much more lenient about their policy than they may seem, with an “exemption form” that is incredibly easy to fill out and really doesn’t require more than a signature.
While anti-vaxxers may rejoice at the fact that they can enter in-person classes with little more than a couple clicks, those who were already uncertain about the safety of going back on campus with the delta variant raging will likely not be pleased to find out they are in a full capacity class where vaccines are not truly required and social distancing is merely “encouraged”. With the R-naught of the delta variant being 8.5 people (meaning every infected person will infect up to 8.5 people) and breakthrough cases becoming more common with the new strains, it would not be surprising if COVID rates at the University will increase sharply within weeks of classes starting. Luckily, 95% of reporting students and 96% percent of staff at the University of Oregon are vaccinated so one can only hope that the university will maintain low enough COVID rates to remain open for at least the rest of fall term.
In Oregon, large crowds continue to protest vaccine and mask mandates in the name of personal freedom, with hundreds swarming the Oregon Capitol in Salem just a few weeks ago to protest mask and vaccine mandates. The leniency in vaccine policy from the University of Oregon is likely meant to tip toe around the growing population of anti-vaxxers as well as the conservative groups which advocate against vaccine mandates here in Oregon. However, this vaccine uncertainty and protest is not just limited to Oregon, all across the US vaccine hesitancy has continued to be prevalent, which is very indicative of our level of privilege. A study by (Solis. et al. 2021), showed that vaccine hesitancy is much more prevalent in high income countries compared to lower income ones, and this is in part due to the differences in access to vaccines worldwide.
According to an analysis done by the BMJ on publicly available data, high income countries have reserved more than half of the world’s vaccine supply despite making up only 14% of the world’s population. This is a phenomenon that has come to be known as “vaccine hoarding” where wealthy countries like the US reserve more vaccines (in our case more than twice the amount needed) than the country needs to vaccinate its entire population. This phenomenon is especially disturbing given that lower income countries are arguably those that are in most desperate need of vaccines, yet access to them is restricted by the unfathomable amount of vaccines hoarded by wealthier nations. We are also able to see this vaccine discrepancy among higher and lower income countries in current vaccination rates, with higher income countries like the US having vaccination rates (first dose) upwards of 60%, and lower income countries like Afghanistan still having less than 2% of its population vaccinated. Though programs such as “Covax” have been created to ensure that vaccines are made available around the world (with high income countries compensating cost for lower income countries), it has been a slow process and the US has thrown out more than 15 million doses of the COVID vaccine since March.
Lower income countries generally do not have the capacity to manufacture oxygen or life saving drugs. These countries are the ones that most need the surplus of vaccine doses; unfortunately they will likely have to suffer until at least 2022- the date Covax gave for when they can provide a 20% vaccination rate to lower income countries. Income level is also a local issue in the vaccine crisis, at least 20 states did not include the homeless in their vaccine rollout plans.
In the US, where the vaccine is extremely accessible, we have turned the vaccine not into a public health issue, but a political issue, with conservative groups becoming advocates of the anti-vax movement (very ironic that their protection of bodily autonomy does not extend to women’s uteruses), and liberals enforcing vaccine mandates. With unvaccinated Americans being 11 times more likely to die from COVID and related complications and 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, the politicization of COVID in a population where vaccines are highly accessible only further contributes to the suffering of those less wealthy, both within the country and worldwide. With the privilege we have here in the United States to have such easy access to vaccines, we must educate ourselves on the implications of not getting/getting vaccinated and what we can do to help achieve vaccine equity both in our country and worldwide.

Here in Eugene, programs like the Whitebird Clinic and St Vincent De Paul are working to prioritize vaccination of our houseless neighbors. Many homeless people are elderly or have underlying health issues that make them much more vulnerable to suffering serious side effects from this virus, which is why it’s important that we advocate for our government to provide vaccine accessibility to people in all areas and all walks of life currently residing in the United States.
Although for many of us it seems life has gone back to normal and COVID is just about over, this delusion couldn’t be farther from the truth. Here in the US, and at the UO specifically, we live in a bubble of privilege in which we can still go to class, parties, events and pretend like the pandemic isn’t a major issue, however, across the world (including here) lower income communities are still struggling with devastating personal, social, and economic losses from the pandemic which has not ceased to rage through these populations. Of course, no individual has the ability to go out and prevent the mass spread of COVID; however, getting vaccinated if you have access, wearing your mask, and supporting programs like Whitebird are all small things you can do to help those who may not have the same COVID and vaccine privilege as we do here at the UO.

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