Getting to the Head of the Vaccine Line

Dec. 2, 2020

As COVID vaccines continue to be developed, with the United Kingdom being the first nation to approve one for use, there’s going to be some tough decisions ahead on who gets them first.

Manufacturing the vaccines will be time-consuming, no matter how many resources are devoted to it. And vaccination will require two shots, which will double the time needed for production and distribution. That means governments will have to prioritize. Naturally, there will be a lot of people jostling, individually and collectively, to get to the head of the line.

Food industry trade groups are advocating for their workers to be included in the early rounds of the vaccine. Their argument is simple and compelling: These are vital workers, who have no choice but to work indoors in large groups. If America is to be fed, they need to be safe.

That’s certainly true. But a disturbing analogy keeps popping into my mind, try as I might to get rid of it:

For a long time, the overuse of antibiotics on livestock has been controversial. The fear is that it could lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Critics charge that the only reason to dose animals with antibiotics preemptively is to allow them to be held in close quarters without fear of infection from unsanitary conditions.

I really, really hope that the industry is not going to treat its employees like livestock and the COVID vaccine like antibiotics – something that absolves them of responsibility to provide decent working conditions.

The proof is whether we’ll see an abrupt retreat from the safety measures that many food companies put into place during the pandemic, like barriers and extra sanitation. Most of them will eventually disappear, but the end of the pandemic won’t be a sudden, discernible event; it will take time to play out. No one should be in a big rush to dismantle pandemic protections until it’s certain that the crisis has passed.

And even after the pandemic is well and truly over, will the concern for worker safety remain? They’ll still get sick from this or that, and here’s hoping they’ll be able to get help – or at least not be pressured to stay on the job.

None of this is to deny that food workers absolutely should be a high priority for getting the vaccine. Whether that happens or not will be a test, not of the food industry, but of American society as a whole.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a member of the COVID advisory board for the Biden transition, points out that the workers who need protection the most tend to have the least prestigious jobs, like bus drivers and, yes, meatpackers. Whether we prioritize those people over, say, home-office workers like me, will show whether we truly prize justice above class.

As Gawande said to the New Yorker (where he often publishes): “We’ve never put those people first in line.”