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Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
I have vaccine envy.
There. I’ve confessed it. The thought of getting a COVID-19 vaccine makes me impatient, greedy, needy. I yearn for a vaccine the way some people want a mansion or a Tesla or Michelle Obama’s dresses.
A friend in California emailed a couple of days ago to say she was likely to get her first dose of the vaccine on Monday.
“You?” she added.
Immediately, a little green devil popped up on my shoulder to whisper in my ear, “Yeah, what about you? Don’t you deserve a vaccine?”
Facebook, too, is lively with people announcing they just got their first shot. When my sister-in-law in Oregon posted a photo showing she’s scheduled for her second dose, the little green devil popped up again, harrumphing, “Where’s yours?”
And when a friend who works for a large Chicago medical institution got the vaccine through her employer, the little green devil pouted, “Why don’t you work somewhere like that?”
These three lucky vaccine recipients just happen to live or work in places that give them early access to the elixir we’re all waiting for — all of us, at least, who believe that vaccinations are vital to getting the pandemic under control.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m happy for my friends. I don’t begrudge anyone a vaccine. So many people need it more than I do. When I see photos of people with that needle in their arm, I feel a jolt of hope. You can want what someone else has without wanting to deprive them of it.
I don’t like this feeling, so I’ve been relieved to learn that others are afflicted.
“I can personally attest to vaccine envy,” says a friend who at the youthful age of 60 is five years too young to be eligible for the next phase of the vaccine. “For once I wish I was older.”
The problem is, there’s not enough hope-in-a-needle to go around yet, a problem compounded by the confusion over how to get in line for your eventual dose.
“Do you understand what we’re supposed to do?” a friend asked recently. She’s educated and media savvy and yet, like so many of us, she was stumped.
I gave her my best guess but the truth is, no. As far as I can tell, the plan is still in progress. This confusion exacerbates the envy. If more of us knew when we’d get a vaccine, the little green devil would settle down.
Despite my vaccine envy, I agree with a friend who emailed the other day that she doesn’t like hearing people grumble about others getting the vaccine first.
“Every shot in someone’s arm is a step closer to me and my family getting our lives back,” she wisely says. “This is another moment when our selfish country has to keep remembering the greater good, which ultimately helps us as individuals too. We’re not patient. As a country, we’ve already failed the marshmallow test, but here’s another shot at it, pun intended.”
The marshmallow test is a famous 1972 study on delayed gratification conducted by a Stanford University psychologist. It involved 32 children. A marshmallow was placed in front of each child. The child was told that if they could hold off on eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they could have two marshmallows.
The researcher left the room while the child agonized: One marshmallow now? Or two later?
The study’s conclusions aren’t the point here, but what is relevant to this pandemic is the essential question: Are we willing to delay gratification for a greater reward?
For many people, the answer has been no. That party? That trip? That visit to the bar? A lot of people have refused to sacrifice immediate pleasures in the name of a healthier future. As a result, we’re all waiting a lot longer for a return to a stable life.
There’s a difference, of course, between denying yourself an activity you can control (going to the party) and being forced to wait for the vaccine. What’s similar is that both call for patience and the belief that patience will be rewarded.
Vaccine envy isn’t necessarily a desire to take something away from anyone. It’s the wish that there was more to go around so that one day we can all live with less fear, so that one day we can go back safely to the party and the bar, get on the airplane, hug the people we love.
For now, the best we can do is tell ourselves that such a day will come and repeat: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s vaccine.