Get the Vaccine, Drop the Guilt

How Gen Xer Hannah Sung got her shot in Toronto—and why she doesn't feel guilty about it.

Update: On Sept. 16, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines received full approval from Health Canada as well as new brand names. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is now “Comirnaty,” the Moderna vaccine is now “SpikeVax” and the AstraZeneca vaccine is now called “Vaxzevria.”

After more than a year of pandemic life, I’ve been afraid to even look forward to this but it’s finally happened — I got my vaccine.

I got it last week at a pharmacy one block from my front door. On the walk home, I felt lighter with each step and decided it was cause for an impromptu party so I picked up flowers, fruit and a peanut butter pie. Random, but I’ll take anything to get this party started.

I mean, both my husband and I had just gotten injected with miracles of science — that day, of all days in the pandemic, was a very different day. And even though there was no way to plan for it, with the vaccine roll-out being so unpredictable, I wasn’t going to miss any reason for a kitchen party.

With all the news on variants, and because I am just plain tired of this pandemic, I was relieved to get my first shot. Still, I felt hesitant about how I’d gotten it. And should I tell friends on my social media? Would it make anyone else feel the FOMO? Would it feel like boasting, especially given the inequitable access to vaccines in my neighbourhood, city and around the world.

Here in Ontario, where the vaccine roll-out has been like The Hunger Games, we’re finally in the phase of the pandemic where our social media feeds are filled with vaccine selfies and I’m so happy for everyone showing off their shoulder and Band- Aid combo. Every time I see one, I literally want to stand up and cheer. That person I love is that much safer from Covid.

But getting the vaccine wasn’t an easy straight path.

I had a ton of unexpected emotions on vaccine day. The closer I got to it, the more stressed I felt, wondering if in fact, I hadn’t organized myself properly to juggle everything and get through the eye of the needle to get myself to finally connect with that vaccine.

Afterward, I felt relief, mostly because I felt so incredibly lucky. And while I believe in gratitude, it’s that luck factor that really bugs me because something as important as this vaccine shouldn’t feel like a game of chance.

Here’s what happened as I navigated my haphazard path to the jab:

(Related: This Is What It’s Like Getting the COVID Vaccine)

First Eligibility — Postal Code Hotspot

Three weeks ago, Ontario pivoted their vaccine strategy to include neighbourhoods with high COVID rates. My Toronto neighbourhood was identified as a hotspot. Previously, I thought I’d be among the last to receive a vaccine and I was ok with that (until the news on variants became scarier and scarier). However, suddenly and surprisingly, I was eligible for a vaccine earlier than expected.

“But I’m not a vulnerable essential worker,” I thought. “I work from home. Others need it more, I can wait.”

I’m not saying this is the right attitude (it’s not—as health experts have since reminded us, getting vaccinated helps everyone). But it’s how I felt. So, I didn’t get on waitlists as early as I could have.

(Related: Hayley Wickenheiser On What Working on the Frontlines of COVID-19 Has Been Like)

Second Eligibility — GenXeca 40+

About a week later, it was announced that the age for AstraZeneca vaccines was being lowered to 40+. Now I was eligible in two ways, by location and age. But to get the AZ shot, I knew I’d have to start making tons of phone calls, researching pharmacies and deciphering different online forms, since in Ontario, there is no central booking system. I didn’t have the energy. I already work all day and night. This isn’t woe is me, it’s just facts. I needed a break and I wanted to enjoy some outdoor time with my family on the weekend. So, I didn’t get on it until a friend texted with some pharmacy information and another friend phoned to push me to start calling. Meanwhile, one of my group chats started popping off, with information on various pharmacies in our neighbourhood.

On Sunday night, I made calls for hours. I left my name and number with multiple pharmacies, yet nothing was confirmed.

(Related: How to Talk to Your Loved Ones About the COVID-19 Vaccines)

The Plan To Walk-In

Monday morning, I was back to the work grind, so my husband took on the vaccine chase. When he learned our local pharmacy would be doing walk-ins the next day, we devised a plan: He would go early, check out the line, and call me when I should join the line myself. I had morning meetings and an afternoon recording session that had been booked for weeks. But the pharmacist was due to arrive at noon, at which point the walk-in would begin. I really didn’t know what I’d do with the kids. But I hoped I could just run over quickly while my husband held a spot in line and that I would only be leaving the kids, who are young, at home for a half hour on their own.

My husband set out two hours before the pharmacist was due to arrive, with a lawn chair and a book in hand.

And Then I Really Did Walk Right In

When I got the call to join my husband in line, my kids were at the park getting some much-needed exercise after three hours of sitting at computer school that morning.

“Pharmacist is here now and the line is moving. Come!” my husband texted.

But I couldn’t leave. Afternoon class was about to start, and my kids need an adult to get them through the full-time IT job of printing worksheets, updating Chrome plug-ins and managing Zoom and Google tabs. Frankly, every school day involves tears. I couldn’t leave them alone with that.

I just stood there in my kitchen, paralysed, frozen empanadas in the toaster oven, ready to serve for lunch, but unsure exactly when the kids would come back in the door. Should I run down to the street to find them and then park them in front of a Netflix marathon with the instructions, “Don’t move! I’ll be back in an hour!” and cancel my afternoon of work?

Another text. “Pharmacist says they are going to run out soon! It’s now or never!” Logistically, the moment seemed impossible. So I decided to give up.

“I will get it another day,” I texted back. But I’m not very good at giving up. As soon as I pressed send, on a whim, I called.

“When you’re with the pharmacist, tell them your nice wife is at home with the kids and ask if he can put one aside — I can swap out with you and be there in five seconds!”

Whenever I get like this, my husband gives me major side-eye. “Okayyyy.” But a half hour later, I got a text:Wow! Pharmacist says he’ll save you one!” 

(Related: Going the Distance: How Covid Has Remapped Friendships)

My husband rushed home, happy to escape the crowded pharmacy. He didn’t feel like the deed was done, though. Only half of us were vaccinated. He took over with the kids and I wrapped my Zoom call to run back to the pharmacy.

“Here, take this!” My husband passed me a handwritten note from the pharmacist on my way out the door. It had my name on it and the pharmacist’s name, plus the words: BYPASS LINE. “Show it to the security guard.”

When I arrived at the pharmacy, there was a long line up stretching down the street. Feeling unsure, I walked past it, as instructed. Are the folks in line wondering why I’ve walked right in?

“Hi,” I greeted the security guard. “The pharmacist is expecting me.” “OK!” The guard waved me to the back of the pharmacy where there was another group of people standing around. I interrupted a harried pharmacy technician to ask where I should go. She asked my name.

“Hannah’s here!” She called out to the pharmacist.

“Oh, great, Hannah’s here!” He sang back, as if he knew me.

I awkwardly hovered around the tiny vestibule where I’ve previously gotten flu shots over the years and as soon as they had their next round of vaccines ready, I was the first person he called in, like an old friend. “Hannah!”

It all happened so fast. I didn’t even take a selfie, I was too nervous. There was no chair, no Band-Aid, no button that read, “I got the vaccine!” Just sticker footprints on the ground, to indicate where to stand. I stood there for five seconds as we bantered, and I thanked him repeatedly. I was jabbed. It was done.

(Related: How Are Canadian Caregivers Handling COVID?)

Bypassing the line

I had gotten what I’d come for, a shot in the arm. But standing there in the pharmacy, I felt torn. I had breezed right into the pharmacy with a handwritten note that read, “bypass line.” Had I just become an actual queue-jumper?

The pharmacist’s note burned a hole in my pocket. It was written on the back of the receipt that shows my husband had gotten the vaccine, so I couldn’t even throw it away. It’s on our fridge now, waiting for us to book our appointments for our second dose.

Today, I’m frustrated by what I felt that day. Queue-jumping isn’t real (unless it is — don’t lie about who you are or where you live). When you’re eligible, that’s it — you should get the vaccine, period.

The truth is, there a similarity between all of us who got vaccinated at that pharmacy that day. We all had enough give in our routines, our lives, our work, to be at the Shoppers for three hours, and perhaps more, in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. That is a luxury. Thinking about it now almost makes me want to cry. It shouldn’t be this way.

The root of my guilt is the knowledge that others are lining up overnight, in the rain and navigating online systems without the language and computer-literacy skills that make it easy for me. Instead of having centralized, easy sign-ups or bringing vaccines to workers where they are, getting a vaccine comes down to how much time you have and an unnecessary amount of luck.

What we have in Ontario with Premier Doug Ford and his Conservative Party is a complete lack of political leadership. They shirk their duties and responsibilities, while downloading responsibility onto individuals, as if a pandemic can be effectively fought this way.

As I continued to think about it, my guilt turned to a familiar feeling of frustration and anger with our shoddy political leadership in Ontario. I refuse to feel responsible for what this government is actually responsible for.

When a pharmacist writes me a note, it doesn’t change the reality of what Ontario has done with this vaccine roll-out, how inequitable it’s been, how lacking in strategy to connect with the people who need it most.

Last spring, when I was feeling a ton of guilt over how much privilege I have, my friend Lisan, a therapist, said, “Don’t. Guilt is not helpful or productive. It’s more like a self-flagellating tool. It saps energy. Having said that, it’s also not voluntary. It’s hard to turn the tap off of guilt. One way to do it is to act, rather than getting stuck in guilt.”

How to get over the guilt is to act. Get the vaccine — it’s the best thing you can do for your community. Celebrate other people’s vaccines. Help others connect to their own vaccines and keep pushing the Ontario government for much-needed measures like paid sick leave, real paid sick leave that doesn’t leave workers worse off than the already-difficult CRSB system. Demand better funding of public health, public education, affordable housing, all the things that keep everyone safe, not just the privileged few.

I am proud, relieved and so very thankful I got vaccinated. And I continue to feel elated for anyone I know who’s gotten it as well. Guilt is no longer an option.

Hannah Sung’s column appears monthly(ish) on Best Health. It’s adapted from her (excellent) newsletter, At The End Of The Day. If you’re interested in reading more, sign up for it down below or click here.

Next, this is languishing: the “bleh” feeling brought on by Covid.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada