When Washington state announced that vaccines would be available to all adults 16 and over, I took the first vaccine appointment available to me. As I received my vaccine that Sunday among many other newly eligible adults, I teared up. These were certainly tears of hope, gratitude and relief. But these were also tears of guilt, frustration and anger — resembling several emotions I have grappled with throughout the pandemic.
I am privileged. I may not make a lot of money, parts of my career have been upended, I am among those who rescheduled, and inevitably canceled, their wedding reception, and I have suffered from the loneliness of not being able to see friends in person. But I am a young, healthy, white American citizen with good health insurance and access to health care. I own my own car, I share a living space with only my spouse, and I am privileged to be able to work entirely from the comfort and safety of my home.
My network in the U.S. consists of people in more or less similarly privileged positions. But my network also spans beyond the U.S. I have spent much of the past 10 years living and working in Myanmar and northern Thailand. As a privileged white American citizen working with predominantly stateless ethnic minority women, youth and families in Southeast Asia, I am constantly reminded of my privilege, and I continue to work to understand how my privilege has benefited me and impacted others.
Over the past year, I have been fortunate to be reminded that my network in the U.S. consists of pro-vaccine individuals. But I have been frustrated and hurt by narrow-mindedness around vaccine eligibility and distribution. I constantly hear complaints about not being able to see friends, take a vacation or get a vaccine yet. But my network also consists of friends and colleagues in other parts of the globe who may not see a vaccine for at least another year, and many of these people are essential workers. The global wealth gap means that many countries are reliant on aid from other countries and COVAX for vaccine supply.
Moreover, while many Americans are concerned about vacations, weddings and reopening bars, others have bigger concerns beyond COVID-19. In Myanmar, where I have lived and worked, not only are individuals’ lives threatened by the pandemic but also by the uncertainty and brutality of military raids, arrests and shootings since the February coup.
As individuals, we cannot alone change many of the inequalities widening under COVID-19. But we must understand them and learn from them to do better the next time such an extensive global disaster unfolds. We cannot close global equity gaps without understanding why they exist and how our privilege contributes to these gaps. Collectively, we must learn, understand, share and advocate.
My message to many Americans is this: Get your vaccine and contribute to controlling this virus. But do so while understanding your privilege. Instead of focusing on the vacation you want to take or celebration you want to have, reflect on the privilege that has provided you with this opportunity for protection and what you can do to contribute to a global solution to and recovery from COVID-19.
Initiate discussions with friends, family and communities about how your privilege impacts local, national and global inequities that are widening due to COVID-19. Partake in efforts at all levels of society and government to hold leaders and organizations accountable to addressing inequities caused by COVID-19. This is a global pandemic, and a real solution can only be a global solution.