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Covid vaccine wait challenged my commitment to equity and exposed my privilege

I used to think I would always live by my principles. Now, I’m not so sure.
Image: Illustration shows people of all ages and races climbing a large needle as a white woman looks up from the back of the line.
I hope the angst of my wait taught me patience. It certainly made me realize how my privilege permeates everything I do.Eleni Kalorkoti / for NBC News

Until the pandemic hit, I never thought of myself as superior or someone who felt a sense of entitlement. After all, I grew up part of the working class. I had to work weekends as a cleaner at my Catholic girls’ school to pay for tuition.

Equity was and is a value I try to espouse. But when your health and future are at stake, it’s far less easy.

But a scholarship and summer jobs were sufficient to give me a first-class college education. I became a journalist and worked in a professional circle where I met and married a fellow journalist who had grown up in a financially comfortable household. Our jobs and his background guaranteed my solid ascension to the middle class.

That change in class status hasn’t made me a monster. I’m not one of those people who berates Starbucks baristas for slow service, or who cuts in front of others at grocery stores. I don’t elbow shoppers aside seeking bargains, and I don’t go after things millions of people want, like tickets to "Hamilton." But I am adept at searching the internet, writing persuasive emails, asking for help from diverse networks of friends and colleagues and paying extra to jump the line.

As such, my life as an educated, white, middle-class American — and a journalist to boot — didn’t prepare me for a monthlong waiting game to get the Covid-19 vaccine. What I experienced forced me to acknowledge how much my own white privilege has opened doors for me throughout my life, and it challenged how firmly I believe in — and am willing to act on — racial equity.

Until this past month, when the stakes have never been higher, I’ve always secured anything I really went after.

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I became a hero to my teenage daughter when a trip to Rome coincided with fashion week. I obtained press credentials, resulting in an avalanche of invitations to fashion shows. When that same daughter started having terrible migraines, I proposed a health story on the issue to The Washington Post, mostly to get direct access to national headache experts. It worked.

When press passes haven’t been an option, I generally have the means and inclination to pay for expedited access. I once spent $100 to become an “American Friend of the Prado,” a designation that gave me nearly instant entry to the home of some of the world’s greatest art for five glorious days.

I always sign up for hotel loyalty programs, read travel reviews religiously before reserving and ask in advance for a room with a lovely view. If the email is complimentary enough, it often yields an upgrade. I never thought of this as white privilege, but the expectation that I can convince a hotel manager to provide me with a better room springs from a lifetime of knowing that as white woman, I can wander into the lobby of almost any high-end hotel and not be challenged. No one will accost me if I use the restroom.

I live in Virginia, a state that’s been struggling with both vaccine distribution and supply. Nevertheless, I was undaunted about getting an appointment for a shot as soon as my 65 and older age group became eligible. I could use our household’s computers and reliable broadband to access several work and neighborhood list-serves, all brimming with helpful tips about obtaining the vaccine. One friend circulated the link to the health department in my town in the D.C. suburbs, and I was in business. I jumped online and registered. So did my husband.

After another neighbor tipped me off that he’d gotten vaccinated in a town a few miles away, I signed up at that town’s site. I had heard that some of my friends had been vaccinated at local hospitals, so I searched those sites as well. I have subscriptions to medical journals, local and national newspapers and a flexible work schedule that allowed me to grab any information that would assist my search.

When a pharmacy chain announced that vaccination slots would be available in my city — something I wouldn’t have known had a work contact not alerted me — I was planning to be ready at 11:59 p.m. the night before. I was willing to use my computer and car to book an appointment at a pharmacy up to 15 miles away, a slot that might have been meant for someone in an underserved neighborhood who had neither internet nor private transportation.

But none of my strategies allowed me to get vaccinated more quickly, even as my friends recounted their successes — albeit ones who lived in small cities in New York or Maryland or are at least 75. It felt like FOMO, big time. And when I heard that some nearby states were prioritizing people who are obese or smokers, my initial reaction was high dudgeon. “We’re rewarding unhealthy behavior!”

But during those weeks of angst, I tried to listen to my better self. My impatience that others might receive the vaccine before me was unreasonable Any time one of us gets vaccinated, it benefits all of us. And it makes perfect sense for public health officials to ensure that indigenous, Hispanic and Black people get their shots first because they are far likelier to get sicker, become hospitalized and die from the coronavirus than whites. Smokers and obese folks are also at greater risk.

There’s a lesson in interdependence here, too, where altruism redounds to everyone’s betterment, myself included. If the people most prone to being hospitalized are vaccinated, that means hospitals won’t be overtaxed. So if I need to be hospitalized for a heart ailment or some other emergency, there will be room for me.

So I waited for my turn. After one month — an entirely reasonable amount of time — we got an appointment through our local health department.

I hope the angst taught me patience. It certainly made me realize how my privilege permeates everything I do. I would like to think I wouldn’t have ever resorted to cheating to secure a shot. But if the wait had been even longer? Or the Covid-19 crisis even more dire? Equity was and is a value I try to espouse. But when your health and future are at stake, it’s far less easy. I used to think I would always live by my principles. Now, I’m not so sure.