Our Long Year of Being Mad at Each Other Online

Vaccine scolding is the perfect end to a pandemic year full of personal judgments

3 people touching a laptop
They’re getting mad at your vaccine selfie, probably. Photo: John Schnobrich on Unsplash

No matter how you’ve conducted yourself over the past year, someone has decided that the way you’re handling the pandemic is wrong. This judgment, anger, and confusion stem from the fact that nobody at any level of government is providing us with specific guidelines for conducting our behavior, so in absence of any real leadership, we’re all becoming snitches.

We got mad at runners for running, even while masked! Then we got mad at people for going to parks, posting pictures of people who wanted to relax on a patch of grass after being confined to their homes. We were mad at people who left New York and told them not to return, but then some of the people who were mad left New York, so I guess it’s fine to leave now? The way you’re layering your masks, assuming you’re even going the extra mile to wear two, is also possibly wrong. And now we’re mad at people for getting the vaccine!

The vaccine rollout in the United States embodies all of the inequities and failures of American health care, politics, and bureaucracy distilled into one perfectly frustrating moment. My mom, who would qualify for a vaccine in New York but doesn’t in her state of Pennsylvania, had to drive my stepdad, who has MS, across the state of Pennsylvania for his first dose of the vaccine; they’ll have to make the same trip again this month for the second dose. When I qualified for the shot, I walked to a Brooklyn clinic and walked out, vaccinated, in 20 minutes.

This week I saw a woman get mad at the vaccine scammers with a tweet perfectly designed to set off every single person on my Twitter feed at once. “I hope you’re having a great evening,” she tweeted. “I can tell by people’s increasingly cavalier restaurant Instagrams which healthy young rich assholes scammed their way into an early vaccine and I will seethingly hold it against each of them until I draw my last breath. God bless!” This embarrassing, annoying display of sanctimony combines a bunch of totally ungenerous assumptions about people. Are you mad at people dining indoors? Because as long as they’ve been allowed to this year, those people have never stopped dining indoors. Are you also assuming that the people dining indoors scammed their way into vaccines? How?

It’s worth addressing the stories of people engaging in “vaccine tourism,” crossing state lines to get their vaccines. This sucks, primarily because it stretches state supplies thin and worsens existing disparities about who can get the vaccine. In Los Angeles, wealthy residents took Covid-19 vaccines intended for residents of color in parts of the city that were gravely affected by the pandemic. These stories are maddening, and we can hold space for those justified feelings of outrage at individuals and the systems that enable them, but we can also check ourselves for judging everyone we know or see online who’s getting the vaccine.

In reality, most of the people you see getting the vaccine are simply taking what’s offered to them. You also can’t tell from looking at a person if they qualify to get a vaccine; not all health conditions are visible, and trying to determine how someone qualifies for a vaccine is a useless exercise that’s also pretty rude. Frustration and fear are both running high in this moment of uncertainty, after a year of feeling both of those emotions intensely. Everyone, including doctors and our leaders, appears to be learning on the fly. Also, the United States is getting the vaccine before lots of other people in the world — the whole rollout is unfair.

Vaccine scolding is the perfect end to a year of policing from people who would rather judge people on an individual level than interrogate the systems and institutions that make the rules. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about why I dislike the phrase “pandemic wall.” By using this phrase we’re entertaining a fiction where it’s on individuals, and not a broader system, to fight a global public health crisis that is impossible to fight on an individual level. Left to our own devices, with no guidance from our officials who have been busy hiding the Covid-19 death toll at nursing homes and then taking a victory lap by writing a book about how to lead during a pandemic, we are left to judge for ourselves what is good and what is not, which has resulted in a year of getting mad at other people online, mostly.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I still make occasional private judgments of other people’s behavior, but I’m trying to have more empathy for others. It’s been a long year full of grief and isolation, and there may be more to come. Also, if the vaccination rollout has been unfair, then the way Covid-19 spread fastest — to people living and working around a lot of people — was equally so. I don’t think anyone has been perfect this year. I certainly haven’t. But at this point, we’d be much better off interrogating the systems we live under rather than the people we live among.

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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