a good vaccine rollout doesn’t require tech skills

There’s a lot of talk, of late, about vaccine rollouts, and whether or not the U.S. is doing a good job. Some folks think it’s an unmitigated disaster; others point out that rolling out a large-scale vaccine campaign isn’t easy (although they always manage to forget that, in Ye Olden Days, we somehow managed large-scale vaccine campaigns and did it faster than we’re doing it now). I have my own feelings about the rollout, and the layers of priority—if I’m required to be at work, then vaccinate me, you pieces of ish—but I’m going to talk about a different side of the rollout, the part which, in my opinion as a librarian, makes it an utter, unmitigated disaster: the internet part.

Our American vaccine rollout appears to require tech skills. And not just tech skills: one really needs high-speed internet, too, and likely not whatever one gets through data on one’s smart phone. It’s a cascading series of requirements, making the securing of an appointment ever more difficult. Reliable high-speed internet access isn’t all that common, even among folks who theoretically have (and definitely pay for) high speed internet access. Websites can be glitchy, as we all know, and governmental websites are not only not immune but sometimes the worst offenders of all. (Remember the HealthCare.gov rollout? It sucked.)

I’ve seen a lot of coverage focusing on the elderly during this rollout—they won’t have high-speed internet, or know how to use it; they won’t be able to get into the websites needed, or figure out the queues. And, I mean, there are definitely cases in which that’s true, and older folks will struggle with those online queues, and might not have the tools necessary to get to them at all. But they’re not the only ones who will have problems. As someone who’s worked in both public and academic libraries, I’m always amazed that people think that all older folks are tech-illiterate (they aren’t, I assure you), and that all younger folks are great with that web stuff (they aren’t, either). It’s this weird, double-edged sword of ageism and classism, one which obliterates the lived realities of so many folks in order to create one convenient, and often untrue, narrative.

Vaccines are about a lot more than individual people: they are, fundamentally, about the collective good, and about public health. Any good public health campaign needs to reach people where they are, without demanding that they first jump through hoops and stand on one foot in order to access them. I mean, we’ve got enough problems in this country with our long (and ongoing) history of medical racism—adding those hoops is disastrous, and, I believe, unethical, as well as, ultimately, damaging to the collective. I’ve helped enough people from all walks of life with their technology needs to know that some people are great with technology and some aren’t; that even those who are really confident may have trouble with certain websites or certain queues, whether because of their devices (even good ones!) or because the websites or queues just fundamentally suck. In a time of public health catastrophe, such as now, that’s really not where we need to be.

I don’t, of course, have answers to much of anything. I’m a librarian, after all, which means that I get stuck trying to fix other people’s disasters as my patron panics in front of me. It sucks even in the best of times, and to be blunt, we’re in a disaster right now, nothing even close to the best of times at all. Sending people to the library for help signing up for a vaccine is a disaster—we shouldn’t be open right now, and we definitely shouldn’t be hanging out close to each other. Truthfully, libraries and public schools have been expected to shoulder heavier and heavier burdens as services are cut elsewhere, and this absurd vaccine rollout is just another symptom of a problem we’ve all been living for a long time now, that problem where when no one else can or will or wants to, when everyone’s budgets get cut (including ours!), we’re supposed to pick up everyone else’s pieces and help.

And, look, that’s not the way a public health campaign should be run. It shouldn’t rely upon people knowing how to jump through hoops and having the balance to stand on one foot. It shouldn’t depend upon those who can’t making their way to a public library, or a similar institution. It needs, fundamentally, to meet us all where we are, to make access easy, something readily available to the collective rather than set aside for those who know how to summit the technology peaks. It’s frustrating and it’s discouraging and, just once, I’d really, really like to see us try to meet people at least halfway, rather than making everything more difficult.