Concierge medical practices are fielding inquiries from their wealthy patients wondering when the COVID-19 vaccine will be available. Dr. Bill Lang of the WorldClinic was even fielding texts from patients on Thanksgiving day, according to the health publication Stat. The rules around who gets a vaccine when will shift from state to state, but the ethics and scrutiny around who will receive a vaccine first remain immutable. And they don’t require any late-night texts to answer.
The U.S. government is laying out broad guidance for vaccine distribution starting with health care workers (21 million), nursing facilities (3 million), high-risk people and those older than 65 (153 million) and essential workers (87 million). Well over 200 million complete vaccinations would have to be administered before the healthy, wealthy and under-65 clients who can afford high-priced concierge medical care should receive a dose if the U.S. health care delivery system were equitable and just.
Uneven access to medical care
Which it’s not. The entire COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the uneven nature of access to medical care, to jobs in which staying home is not a path to starvation, and to in-person schooling for children. And that makes the individual moral decisions of U.S. elites all the more crucial in this time of national crisis.
There are already rumors of executives seeking special dispensation to have their workers newly designated “essential” in order to cut in line. Any new designations should be carefully examined, and governmental agencies should sequester their decision-making processes from undue political influence. The lives of those who have been risking theirs to care for our sick, work in our drive-thrus and stock our grocery stores and drugstore shelves should come first.
The optics of jumping the COVID-19 vaccine line will be terrible and should be damaging. Anyone who has the means to finagle access to a vaccination before essential workers who have no option to work from home should think twice. Media and political scrutiny of those who leverage connections and money for early access will be intense. Conveniently timed claims of fresh diagnoses of chronic asthma or sudden onset diabetes in order to engineer admission to the “at risk” group will — and should — be met with deep suspicion.
And this scrutiny will be applied to global business leaders as well. The multinational elites of Davos are set to gather in person in Singapore in May. The World Economic Forum, usually held in Switzerland in January each year, will now be in Asia, a region of the world that has a better handle on COVID-19 transmission than the United States and European Union.
'Follow the science': It's complicated when it comes to who gets a vaccine and when
This year’s gathering will also be a litmus test for lifeboat ethics on an individual scale. Singapore may require forum participants to have proof of vaccination to enter the country. If that’s the case, corporate executives and their retinues will be on the hunt for access to the vaccine perhaps before all those at higher risk are protected. That’s wrong, especially for any healthy executive whose company has successfully weathered the pandemic.
Misbegotten 'badge of horror'
Vaccinations could come with a certification that will likely free up the holder to travel and resume a near normal, pre-pandemic lifestyle. And for a period of time, while manufacturing ramps up, an early vaccination certificate might become the ultimate high-net-worth status symbol. Such a misbegotten “badge of horror” will be particularly incriminating if vaccine manufacturing and distribution go poorly and the lives of those most impacted continue to remain at risk.
For those leaders who are healthy and still wealthy in the midst of the global health and economic meltdown, and whose employees have largely been able to work effectively from home, patience will be the name of the game and the path toward lasting trust with customers, global policymakers and the public. The ongoing inconvenience of remote work and more frequent testing — until those most at risk are protected first — could be preferable to the societal and media condemnation of those who don’t wait their turn.
A life and death decision: Who should get the COVID vaccine next?
Line-cutters will be named and shamed. It’s inevitable, as will be the congressional hearings and front-page investigative stories ferreting out who saved their own skin at the expense of others.
No one should want to be the metaphorical man in the fur coat elbowing his way through women and children to secure a seat in the lifeboat. Elites must think carefully about the collective social opprobrium bound to rain down before seeking a shortcut.
Juleanna Glover is a public affairs adviser to corporations and has advised many Republican politicians, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the late Sen. John McCain. She is a member of the Biden Institute Policy Advisory Board, a research and policy center at the University of Delaware. Follow her on Twitter: @JuleannaGlover
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccine distribution: Name and shame elites who jump the line