What’s Behind Vaccine Shaming?

On the surface, the public pride of obtaining the coronavirus vaccine is a way of promoting science, trust in institutions, health, etc. What is actually behind such displays when only 1% of Africa has access to the vaccination? (This number is developing, but remains small). Let’s keep in mind that the game played between the center and the right is one of faux opposition to each other with a real alliance against the left.

For the center, the right’s skepticism of vaccines is a nice foil. Coronavirus has entrenched inequality in many ways. For working people, there was no way to safely stay away from the virus, and calls to shut down the economy created more problems for the working class. What the stay-at-home orders exposed was how financialized the labor of the upper class has become.

For the poor, the labor, now largely “outsourced” in poor countries, could not “go home”. The rich, incapable of producing anything for the material world they are rapidly destroying, could simply go home, play on their computers, made by slaves, make up some numbers, get richer, while the poor worked for a living, exposed to the virus with real work, without a financial safety net without work. For women, the most real of the working class, their labor, in the home and on the frontlines, became even more dangerous, as financial squeezes at home left them vulnerable to an epidemic of domestic violence.

Here comes the vaccine and the idea behind promoting it is a good one, but it must not be in a superficial way. Instead, we must assume that people are not getting vaccinated for legitimate reasons. Either people have sincere alienation from institutional power, for good reason, and need to be convinced, or else they simply don’t have access. Proving that one is proud to be vaccinated is nothing more than Joe Biden’s frightening technocratic nationalism.

I do support shame. But rather than shame people for not having access to the vaccine, we should be shaming capitalism for failing to provide vaccines for the poor people of the world. Donald Trump said what he meant when he described poor countries as shit holes. Marking one’s self “clean, healthy, and safe” is the way of showing the world that you are not a shit hole citizen.

While we should beware of anti-vaccine propaganda meant to infect the poor with a deadly virus, and insist in the most politically correct way possible on the necessity of getting the vaccine, we also should beware of the false foil, that asserts a cleaner healthier more civilized population who gets vaccinated and a dirtier virus-infected underclass. Therefore proving that one has the vaccine, that one believes in the science while presenting itself as a useful alternative to the irrationality of the right, does nothing to address the question of access.

I want to assert, in the plainest terms, that the vaccine should be given to everyone, and that attempts to sew distrust in bad faith is just as dangerous as those making attempts to make sure poor people cannot access the vaccine. Real belief in the vaccine involves wearing a mask of shame as long as anyone is not vaccinated. As long as one of us is not vaccinated, we all aren’t vaccinated.

The reason for hope here is that the universalism necessary to our communist utopia is inherent within the contagious disease of COVID-19. As people aren’t vaccinated, there remains a danger of new variants developing, and the virus spreading to those vaccinated. Hence the logic of universalism may also be one of self-interest in this scenario. However, this is not good enough.

We must reject the narcissism of organizing around a common interest and instead assert radically that posting a selfie of a vaccinated self is ultimately a cry for help. The public confession of the vaccination is subconsciously a plea for the rest of the world to be heard. However, this subconscious guilt is also not good enough. As long as the Other remains sick, so do we. Hence a selfie of a clean and coherent self proves to be sick in its own way. The working poor, who live in a state of emergency, must not be left behind.

Andrew Cuomo has been exposed for “saving” New York by shuffling the virus into nursing homes and sacrificing what the brilliant scholar Henry A. Giroux calls “disposable populations”. We risk making the same mistake as we store excess vaccines while Africa and other areas of the world are ignored. A part of New York died when Cuomo chose to sacrifice the old for the “greater good”. A part of our world dies if we do the same in Africa.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com