The Unequal Scramble for Vaccines

As soon as Los Angeles County began offering Covid vaccines to residents 65 and older, Sonia Khatri, whose non-profit agency runs a medical clinic, noticed something different.

“Suddenly our clinic was full of white people,” said Dr. Khatri, the head of Asha Kiran, which provides services to the poor. “We’ve never had that before. We serve people who are disproportionately colored—Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, some African-Americans.” She adjusted the steel-rimmed thick eyeglasses on her nose, which everybody said made her look like Gandhi.

The interviewer—a freckled man with a fringe of red hair under a bald dome and sharp eyes nodded in assent. “The country has lost sight of the fact that while this pandemic is affecting every community, it does not affect every community the same. Black, Latinos, low-income South Asians—many of whom are front-line essential workers—are being infected, hospitalized and dying at rates that far surpass white people,” he sighed.

The fluorescent light overhead caught a few strands of silver in his hair, and the groove of a wrinkle on his forehead. Sonia noticed his colored socks when he crossed his legs.

“Hm,” said Sonia, letting air out through a space between her front teeth. She was remembering how Rajeev, a man she knew slightly from the Hindu temple had accosted her last Saturday after the Durga puja. Sonia’s eyes had been focused on balancing the silver tray she carried—full of marigold flowers, sandalwood pasta and incense—and she didn’t hear him approach.

“My 86-year-old mother needs a vaccine,” he’d said, cupping his hands together in supplication. “I’m desperate, Doctor ji.” (To read Rajeev’s story, go here)

Outside her window, a black-throated green warbler tweeted, and they both turned to see it pass over the tops of tall pines.

“My colleague interviewed a healthy 25-year-old who went vaccine dumpster diving,” said the reporter—Tom, his name was—shutting off his tape recorder. “Except that instead of digging through a hospital’s garbage for vials, she staked out a grocery store pharmacy to score a leftover vaccine. She and a friend arrived in the early afternoon and hours later when the day’s appointments were done, pharmacy staff offered up eight leftover vaccines. The young woman and her friend gleefully claimed two of them.”

Tom shook his head in despair as he wound the cord of his balled microphone and stuffed it in a battered black valise. “I know young people want to be able to date again, socialize in bars and clubs, but what vaccine hunters don’t realize is that every vaccine a low-risk person receives endangers a high-risk person.”

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When her cellphone rang later that evening, Sonia saw it was a FaceTime video call from her son, Aryan. Assistant to a legendary film director, he often regaled her with gossipy tidbits from the Hollywood elite, including sotto voce confidences and who was sleeping with whom.

This time though Aryan’s voice was strained, tinny with distress, having to grapple with calls from the press wanting to confirm that his boss had recently obtained a vaccine, at a time when Los Angeles County had prioritized healthcare workers, and those over 65. He flipped his FaceTime video camera so that she could see a dozen news vans parked outside the movie mogul’s office. The reporters, hungry like vultures seeking a carcass, wanted confirmation that his boss was among several Hollywood dealmakers recommended to Dr. Robert Bray, a neurological spine surgeon with a specialty practice based in Newport Beach, CA.

Sonia took a snow globe from her desk, shook it, and held it up between herself and the window, and watched the flakes swirl.

“Is it true?” she asked quietly.

Aryan dropped his voice to a whisper. “The doctor said the practice allocated ‘extra doses’ at their discretion, but admitted no wrongdoing. What I do know is that managers and agents have been pulled from their daily business to focus on helping clients and stars find vaccines for family members. They’re offering bribes to concierge doctors, arranging private jets to Florida or Maui—a form of vaccine tourism.”

Sonia exhaled sharply, her mind switching gears as an ambulance screeched to a halt outside her door. Now, as she heard the squeal of tires, she dashed to the front desk. Two men of Hispanic origin, hunched over, gasping in pain, were being wheeled in. The daughter of one was splayed over her Dad like a petrified dog while another’s son clutched his father’s hand with one arm while balancing a humidifier in the other.

Both men had diabetes and high blood pressure.

Later Sonia would find out that they both worked low-wage, essential jobs—one, a minibus driver, the other a cook. Both in denial of how sick they were, before they let their families call for help.

Both unaware that a week later they’d be dead.

In the intensive care unit of the trauma center in the hardest-hit county in the state now leading the country in cases, they were Fatalities #207 and 208.

#Covid-19, #covid19pandemic, #vaccinedistribution, #vaccinessavelives, #huntingforvaccines, #vaccinehunters, #righttobarearms, #vaccinedumpsterdiving, #health, #medicine

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