Vaccines against Covid-19 may represent a peak of human ingenuity and achievement – but that still leaves a sticky problem of etiquette: how should you behave during a global scramble for the jab?
When someone jumps the queue and gets vaccinated, do you condemn their selfishness, admire their chutzpah, ask for tips? When a friend or relative is way ahead of you in the queue, are you happy for them or resentful? Is yearning for vaccines a legitimate existential response or is it just a symptom of Vomo – fear of missing out on a vaccine?
These and other questions came to the fore this week as stories emerged of subterfuge, queue-jumping and tension along humanity’s new faultline, the jabbed and not-jabbed.
“You’ve stolen a vaccine from somebody that needs it more than you,” an Orange County sheriff’s deputy in Florida told two women, aged 33 and 44, who had put on bonnets, gloves and fake glasses to try to appear older and dupe their way to a second vaccine dose.
Sir Richard Leese, the head of Manchester city council, said people were “fiddling the system” – some have pretended to be social care staff – to cheat their way into priority categories. “People should not go before they are called to go as you are taking a slot away from someone in greater need,” he said.
The ethical failure of such behaviour is obvious, but less clear is what you do or say to someone who you know gamed the system – a topic that has hummed on social media and in advice columns.
“My brother, who is a health care provider … got his wife vaccinated by putting her on his office payroll temporarily and claiming that she is a health care worker too. (She is not!),” one letter writer told the New York Times. “I’m not sure which is worse: playing the system or gleefully bragging about it in a text he sent around after they had both been vaccinated.”
The columnist’s advice was to suck it up: “You may tell your brother you don’t respect his selfish actions. But to what end? He’s a health care worker! He knew the vaccine grab was wrong and did it anyway. Now you know him and your sister-in-law better.”
Queue-jumping has triggered rows, resignations and red faces across the world, with Austrian mayors, Spanish generals, Peruvian officials and Lebanese politicians among those in the frame.
Pete Lunn, the head of behavioural research at the Economic and Social Research Institute, an Irish thinktank, said cheating or perceptions of cheating could undermine trust in the system.
“If people perceive a system to be unfair, they will often withdraw from it even at cost to themselves. It is important that the system is fair and seen to be fair,” he said.
Despite some bumps in Ireland – hospital staff vaccinated relatives to avoid dumping nearly expired vaccines – it was so far so good, said Lunn. “I’ve seen no evidence that isolated stories are having a negative impact.”
The next challenge for science: a vaccine against cheats, rogues and scoundrels.