Back in elementary school—I was maybe seven years old—I found myself in the Walmart Vision Center staring at a wall full of eyeglasses, the deep-fried smell of the in-store McDonald’s roiling my anxious stomach. Normal, for a kid, to be nervous about getting glasses. Right?
Except the appointment I was attending wasn’t mine, and I wasn’t nervous. I was envious that my cousin was getting glasses. So envious I wept.
I wasn’t proud of feeling that way then. And I’m not proud of feeling that way now that I, 24 years old, working from home, and completely healthy, haven’t received a vaccine.
I do not disagree with the tiered system in which, up until now, I have not qualified for a shot. I do not share Meghan McCain’s infamous disbelief that “I, Meghan McCain, co-host of The View, don’t know when or how I will be able to get a vaccine.” Those most likely to be hurt by Covid-19 got first dibs at protecting themselves. Those who have difficulty seeing get glasses. My rational mind finds the whole situation perfectly logical. “But, you know, your emotions and your heart don't always listen to logic,” says fellow vaccine coveter Jordan Howe, who moved to Capitol Hill from Houston, Texas, in October 2019.
I felt the first pangs of envy in January, while scrolling through mid-vaxx Instagram photos of nurses I know from high school (though I may have just been jealous that they look cute in candid pics). And as the vaccine line marched on, that familiar sensation returned with a vengeance, until every smizing vaccine card selfie injected my brain with a tiny dose of spite and my stomach with a tiny dose of nausea.
Hoping to understand why I felt this way (without consulting a therapist), I turned to Dr. Rachel Fredericks’s University of Washington dissertation on the nature of jealousy. In an email, Fredericks called vaccine envy “an interesting type of envy to consider... one that we would have had trouble imagining just 18 months ago.” Here’s how she breaks down jealousy more generally: First, you have to want something special—a “non-replicable good.” Second, you have to have a “rival” in mind who somehow stands in the way of you and the object of your affection. Third, you have to be able to imagine how you could get your hands on this thing.
Eighteen months ago, I certainly couldn’t have imagined resenting people who lucked into leftover doses while grabbing allergy meds from Rite Aid. But from my wisened 2021 perspective, these are my primary rivals: Equally eligible people, who have done just as much work as me to find a vaccine but got to put all the worries of the past year behind them by being in the right place at the right time. I never win Instagram giveaways, no matter how many friends I tag; I never receive surplus Moderna, no matter how many pharmacies I walk into. Why couldn’t that just be me?
Different people, I learned, have different rivals. Some, like Howe, really can’t stand the line-jumpers, or other perceived rule-breakers, like anti-maskers who spent the past year questioning the pandemic’s veracity then got vaxxed up to fly to Cancun. Others are envious of the vaccine-hesitant who qualify for a dose but refuse to get one. One person anonymously told me that they stretched the truth about their medical conditions to get a vaccine after hearing an eligible friend was holding out: “I was happy to wait my turn until I thought about how many eligible people are gonna ‘wait and see.’”
Such is the frenzy of the vaccine search: Sometimes it feels like an enormous competition, every man for himself. A whole 18-thousand-person Facebook group grew out of the situation. “Seattle Vaccine Hunters is one of those groups you don't tell your friends about until you get the shot,” one particularly competitive member told me. Is jockeying for a vaccine akin to the life-saving logic of putting an oxygen mask on yourself before helping others? Or is it just selfish?
When I take a step back, I admit, it’s a little odd to be jealous of a shot. And it isn’t exactly a “non-replicable good,” given that over 5 million doses have been delivered to Washington providers, with many more on the way. The special something we’re after isn’t a shot at all. It’s the freedom that comes along with immunity: cocktail parties with vaccinated friends, unfettered travel (within the US, anyway). Even as the vaccinated continue to mask up and social distance to keep the rest of us safe, they do so without constantly worrying that they’ll fall gravely ill themselves.
That’s especially meaningful to those in essential (read: risky), public-facing jobs, as well as those who feel strongly that their lives have been put on hold. Howe had only lived in Seattle a few months when the pandemic hit. For a social person accustomed to spending every day with friends, “the impact really heavily was emotional,” she says. “I feel like I lost a year of building my life in a new city.”
We’re used to seeing envy as a purely negative emotion; a green-eyed monster, a deadly sin. “We know stories of jealousy that causes its subject to lash out and jealousy that causes its subject to withdraw,” Fredericks writes in her dissertation. But it can also be motivating. It’s why I started perusing Facebook groups for info about how to snatch doses before they go to waste. It’s why Shoreline-based editor Julie Hills channeled “massive vaccine envy” into volunteering at clinics and finding appointments for overwhelmed family and friends.
Our neighbors and coworkers and friends and family members having the vaccine doesn’t keep us from having it, too—it keeps us safe. Am I still jealous? Of course. I want this even more than seven-year-old me wanted glasses. But I’ll see you all at a cocktail party soon enough.