“As soon as they injected the vaccine, I felt like I took my first deep breath in a year—and not just because breathing is still difficult after having COVID last March,” said Suzanne Zuppello, a woman in her 30s who lives in Long Island. She has beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder that can be complicated by COVID-19, but she felt nervous when she publicly shared that she got the shot online because she’s young and “seemingly healthy,” she said.
“I had a few people ask me why was I able to get it, and I just thought, like, Are they questioning my trustworthiness? Do they think I’m gaming the system just to get to the front of the line?” She said she didn’t feel like she owed anyone any details about her disorder—but she still ended up clarifying her eligibility on social media, lest her vaccine posts come off as “bragging.”
Many people are translating their confusion and powerlessness over the COVID-19 vaccine rollout into litigating whether newly vaxxed folks with health conditions “deserve” the shot. In cases when these people feel entitled to information about others’ health, newly vaccinated people might feel pressured to discuss sensitive health information in order to “justify” themselves, which can feel invasive and stressful. Wanting to avoid discussions about something so private—and the judgement that comes with them—may even lead eligible people to feel uncomfortable about getting the vaccine as soon as they can, which doesn’t help anyone.
Corinne, a woman in her 20s living in Long Island whose name has been changed for her privacy, was able to get the shot because of her asthma. When she recently posted about her eligibility on her Instagram, she received a message from a friend admonishing her for what he called an “odd flex” and telling her she shouldn’t post about getting it when so many others can’t—especially since, he told her, she’d been eating outside at a restaurant, so she couldn’t be too worried about her health.
Since then, Corinne is avoiding conversations about why she qualified for the vaccine. “I just feel like there's a silent judgement from most other people,” Corinne said. “I have two main friend groups, and I haven’t told either that I actually got the vaccine because I know how they’d react, either to my face or silently.” She worries that more of her friends will judge her for getting the shot because she works from home and, yes, occasionally dines outdoors.
Some people who’ve disclosed private health information to even people close to them now wish they’d kept it to themselves entirely. Josh, a man in his 40s in Kentucky who requested anonymity, qualified for the vaccine because of his body mass index. He said he opened up to his mother about his eligibility because he wanted to encourage her to sign up, too. “I really regret that conversation,” Josh said: It was uncomfortable, and talking about his weight with her has led her to make unwanted comments about it regularly. “Now, I get text messages from her that suggest physical activity (‘Is it warm enough where you are to walk the dog yet?’),” he said. “I’ve been pretty private about my journey, and I just wanted to ‘do this’ on my own. Now I feel like if I continue to lose weight, she’ll take credit for motivating me.”
Katherine Mendis, a bioethicist at CUNY School of Medicine at The City College of New York, said that many of the qualifying risk factors for the coronavirus vaccine, such as obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes, are severely stigmatized as deficits of “personal responsibility,” which is another reason people might especially feel guarded about disclosing their conditions. “It is not surprising that these medical vulnerabilities are further stigmatized if they give patients prioritized access to a scarce vaccine,” Mendis said. “These negative judgments are especially sinister, as the literature demonstrates that experiencing racism and/or economic insecurity correlate with—and even cause—many of these risk factors. So ‘vaccination shame’ would be an example of yet another COVID-exacerbated health inequity.”
This shame can arise, in part, from people who imply that someone is less worthy and less deserving because of their condition, or that they need to prove that their condition is the “right” kind to get it. When someone is interrogated by a person demanding to know why they received the vaccine, it sends a signal to that person that their personal health is up for public dissection. That can cause feelings of shame and guilt, even if the people getting vaccinated are protecting themselves and helping to keep the people in their area safe by lowering the chances of community transmission.
Shame is not only an outcome of poor health, but can also cause it. According to a 2019 study, it can lead to the breakdown of social bonds, cause people to delay getting necessary health care, and compound harmful effects of stigma, such as poorer mental health or a shorter life expectancy, since so many health conditions emerge as a result of inequities experienced by people of marginalized identities.
Even if someone doesn’t want to deal with others’ disrespectful behavior about their vaccination and health, it might help them emotionally deal to consider why they might be acting that way. Resentment and jealousy about other people getting vaccinated before they “deserve it” stems from fear and powerlessness, according to Daniel Lieberman, a psychiatrist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “The person [could be] genuinely afraid that they're going to get COVID. And they don't know what's going to happen to them,” he said. “I also think it's being driven by the effects of this long quarantine. A lot of people are suffering psychological consequences, from not having adequate social support, having decreased exercise and decreased exposure to sunlight and the outdoors. I think that's really taking things up a notch.” Finding empathy for those who are behaving rudely towards people about their health can help those on the receiving end cope with it emotionally—but trying to muster that empathy doesn’t mean anyone has to put up with inconsiderate questions by giving in to them.
Lydia, a New York–based woman in her 30s with a neurological condition, said that her vaccination itself was an incredible relief. Still, she decided to be selective about who she told about it, rather than feeling like she had to completely hide it or justify it more broadly. “I didn’t tell my closest friends—the people I trust with everything—until the day it was happening and done,” Lydia explained. But they were supportive, she said, and just happy to hear that someone they cared about was safe.
It’s worth keeping basic decency and understanding in mind the next time you see someone spiral on social media about people getting vaccinated who “don’t need it” (once again: we all need it)—or if you’re tempted to ask or give in to nosy questions yourself. Every vaccine helps lead to a safer community, and anyone who is eligible should sign up if they can. These are scary times, but every vaccine is another step towards a glorious summer.
Follow Angela Lashbrook on Twitter.