Doses for any of the four COVID-19 vaccines currently in circulation are coveted around the world. Receiving a shot in the arm is a cause for celebration—it’s the most effective means humanity has to finally stave off the pandemic that’s killed 525,000 Americans within the course of a year.
Understandably, people are publicizing their vaccinations with joyous selfies, broadcasting their triumphs to friends, family and the broader public. But with vaccine selfies comes the question: How did you qualify to receive your shot?
Even with vaccine envy running rampant, this isn’t a question you should ask. The requirements for receiving a vaccine across the United States are well known at this point: To receive a shot in your state, you either have to meet a certain age requirement or live with at least one of a number of comorbidities. Not everyone wants to disclose whether or not they have an illness that qualifies them for a vaccine. And they shouldn’t have to.
Not everyone wants their illness public
Someone you know may have no demonstrable signs of illness, yet may have dealt with a disease their entire life. Disclosing a tough diagnosis such as cancer is difficult enough when it’s confined to friends and family. When someone has to explain to an acquaintance that they’ve long contended with an illness, it can place an undue emotional burden on the person receiving a vaccination.
Prior to COVID-19, people with chronic diseases already anticipated stigma and being ostracized in broader society. A 2011 study conducted by Yale researchers and published by the National Institutes of Health probed the relationship between societal stigma and chronic illness.
The researchers noted how chronic illness can pervade the lives of those afflicted, often times in ways beyond their control.
People diagnosed with chronic illnesses report experiencing social rejection, workplace termination and poor healthcare due to their chronic illness. Importantly, people living with chronic illnesses may come to anticipate stigma. Anticipated stigma is the belief that prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping will be directed at the self from others in the future.
It’s possible that the person who received a vaccine isn’t enthusiastic about disclosing just how they qualified, for fear of being thought of differently, or being perceived as weak.
There’s also the question of Body Mass Index, and the stigmatization of obesity. People with BMIs over 30 qualify for vaccines. It’s a qualification that not everyone who qualifies through BMI is enthusiastic about, and it’s certainly within anyone’s rights to keep this information private.
You’re prying if you ask
If someone isn’t in your immediate family, or a close friend, their health isn’t really your business. Moreover, you run the risk of making them feel guilty. Though every dose is undeniably essential, it remains true that people who receive doses might feel like they qualified through luck, and that there’s someone else out there who needs it more.
It’s possible you’ll alienate someone who is already grappling with the complicated feelings that come with taking a vaccine jab. There’s only a finite number of doses, though the United States is expected to have enough to vaccinate everyone who wants a shot by May. Given the slow, lumbering process of vaccine distribution, it’s possible that someone who gets a shot could suffer from a case of vaccine guilt, even if they have a comorbidity that legitimately qualifies them for a jab while supplies are limited.
The point is: Don’t ask unless you are already on terms with the person where you both can express candidness and vulnerability with each other. If you’re not on those terms, just congratulate the person for receiving their vaccination. Not all illnesses are visible. It’s possible that someone you know has diabetes, or an autoimmune disorder that allows them to qualify. And if they don’t want you to know about their health, it’s their right not to tell you.