Waiting is the hardest part: A year into the pandemic, COVID fatigue has given way to vaccine envy

People wait in line at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal in early March for their COVID-19 jab as Quebec began vaccinations for seniors.

Humans are complicated animals, said Eldar Shafir. Loving, mean, altruistic, egotistic. All are part of the human condition, said the Princeton University behavioural scientist. “All of it is there.”

But there are subtleties, he said, which is why he understands how otherwise well-meaning COVID vaccine selfies might sometimes come across as annoyingly tone-deaf. “Maybe they think it’s encouraging — ‘I got it, and you’ll get it soon, too,’” Shafir said.

He also sympathizes with those who don’t yet qualify for vaccinations, or who can’t get an appointment if they do, and why they might harbour mixed sentiments — joy for the vaccinated, but also envy and frustration. The shots are our salvation, the only true route out of the pandemic. A year of stay-at-home orders lost its charm months ago, he said.

Shafir is co-author of Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough. In marketing, the scarcity bias holds that the subjective value of a good increases when it’s harder to get. Like frantic Black Friday crowds, people go mad looking for it. In this case, there are good reasons to want the vaccine, like stopping death from COVID.

A year into the pandemic, fatigue has given way to envy.

In Germany, it’s known as impfneid,

envy of those who have been vaccinated. “Envy is understandable,”

William Falk writes in The Week.

“These miraculous shots confer nearly total protection against hospitalization and death, and can parole us from the lonely gloom of our COVID prisons.” U.S. president Joe Biden has promised that every eligible adult American who wants the shot will be vaccinated by end of May. By the Fourth of July, “there should be clinking glasses everywhere,” Falk writes.

After a lethargic start, Ottawa has promised this country is on course to receive eight million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of this month, 36.5 million by June’s end, and 118 million by the end of September. Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military man leading Canada’s vaccination task force, suggested this week that it’s possible every Canadian who wants the vaccine could get their first dose by Canada Day.

But liberation for millions is still months away, COVID levels are “getting out of control” in Ottawa, and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health declared an amorphous third wave is underway in the province. A slight undulating wave? Large, breaking wave? To be determined, Dr. David Williams said.

We’re entering a “bizarre period,” infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said this week at an Ontario Medical Association briefing, where some will be fully vaccinated, some will have one shot of two, and some no shot. As provinces expand their eligibility lists, we try to do the math: “Based on your profile….there are between 11,305,154 and 22,057,270 people in front of you,”

an online vaccine calculator co-created by Toronto web content developer Jasmine Mah

and Steve Wooding from the U.K. computes for a 50-something person who fits into none of the priority categories.

Until everyone is vaccinated, it could mean a new regime of have’s and have not’s, said McGill University anthropologist and cognitive scientist Samuel Veissière. European countries are already discussing immunity passports, permitting only the fully vaccinated entry to restaurants, pubs and concert halls. “That’s going to raise another set of challenges,” said Veissière, associate professor in McGill’s department of psychiatry and co-director of the Culture, Mind and Brain program. “It’s going to create more envy.”

The desire to preserve one’s health and that of our loved ones, our family, our tribe, is inherent and universal, he said. “But we’re also a very individualistic society, and in individualistic societies people’s expectations tend to be high, and as a result their sense of entitlement and their sense of envy also tends to be higher than more collective societies with high trust in one another.”

Absolutely no one begrudges prioritizing shots for the most vulnerable — those living and working in long-term care and retirement homes, frontline health workers, those with underlying illnesses, those living in racialized communities, those who bear the sheer brunt of severe disease. But the longer the wait for everyone else, the more envious people become.

Crashing online vaccine booking portals, regions slipping from “orange” to “red” and drumbeats of a third lockdown in Ontario driven by super transmissible variants — all are frying patience. No one knew the psychological endurance that was going to be needed, said Yale University clinical psychologist Dr. Joan Cook.

The arrival of safe and effective vaccines less than a year after the SARS-CoV-2 virus revealed itself to humans is nothing short of a medical marvel. But when the “vast majority of Canadians remain susceptible to the virus,” as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer daily reminds the nation, it can be hard to be patient.

“There is some pretty clear evidence most people are not obvious cheats and liars, but there are lots of fuzzy lines, and most of us are very happy to transcend those few little fuzzy boundaries,” Shafir said.

“If you look at the guidelines in the U.S. today, if you have asthma (the person gets priority). Well, asthma now? Childhood asthma? Summer asthma?” Being overweight or obese makes people eligible. “Well, what is overweight exactly? Is it medically overweight? Overweight slightly? It’s very easy for somebody who is well-intentioned and really wants the vaccine who says, ‘oh, according to these rules, I’m pretty close,” Shafir said.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control said it’s safe for the fully vaccinated to hug and meet indoors, “and I can see that creating a lot of envy, because we’re all craving social connection and meeting with people,” said Caroline Roux, Concordia University Research Chair in Psychology of Resource Scarcity.

There’s both a downside and upside to the scarcity principle. On the dark side, people tend to become more selfish, more competitive, more willing to cheat, like the queue-jumping Vancouver casino executive and his wife, who flew into a remote community in the Yukon, pretending to be hotel workers. “People put their own needs first and forget about the greater good,” Roux said.

The flip side is that scarcity can make people less pro-self and more pro-social, more empathetic, more focused on the needs of others. There are stories of people turning the vaccine down, “because they think they’re not as high priority as whatever list-making process decided that they were,” Roux said. In fact, her colleagues are finding, in experimental settings, that people are less likely to want to accept a vaccine if it’s framed as being scarce.

Public trust is crucial. The latest flip-flopping on the AstraZeneca vaccine — first not safe for over 65-year-olds, now safe — and concerns over blood clots reports in Europe can sow doubt in the already hesitant. A review by the European Medicines Agency found no evidence the AstraZeneca jab raises the overall risk of blood clots.

While some might find it superficial, posting selfies online could help blunt vaccine hesitancy. Toronto is planning selfie stations at immunization clinics. They offer a kind of social proof, Roux said, signalling to others, “I’m doing the desirable thing.”

For better or worse, vaccine envy is a sign of our entitled individualism, Veissière said. “We all want the solution now. We all want it for ourselves. It’s an extremely complicated global situation.

“Things are getting a little better. People are just going to have to be patient.”

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques