Have vaccines become a status symbol?

The Pfizer Elite, the AstraZeneca Peasants and everyone in between.

Image credit: Marvin Tolentino/Alamy Stock Photo

Until relatively recently, vaccine has always been a word which, for me, held connotations of health, protection and not much else.

When my parents took me to get the Priorix MMR vaccine on July 14, 2003, asking questions around the brand of that vaccine would have been as far flung as wondering what the liquid inside of the syringe tasted like.

With the Delta strain taking away our last two months, Greater Sydney faces a different beast entirely. Myriad revisions to eligibility criteria and government messaging on a Jackson Pollock-esque level of clarity has spurred not just a health crisis, but something of a branding and image crisis too. Are sternly worded TV ads enough to reverse the anxiety? Surely not when health advice is being written at a postgraduate level.

It’s only as I’m writing this that I’ve finally called a nearby GP to schedule my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite the government health body ATAGI advising that, as of July 24, everyone over 18 in Greater Sydney “should strongly consider getting vaccinated with any available vaccine,” I questioned why I still had a niggling feeling asking: Am I being shortchanged?

Your choice of vaccine bearing an inadvertent relationship to status isn’t as wild as it may sound. A Household Impacts survey conducted by the ABS in June found that 14.6% of respondents weren’t getting vaccinated because they wanted a different one than what was available for them. Slate and The Atlantic published pieces covering how the ‘divide’ between the Pfizer vaccine and others such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in the USA and UK had made its way into the collective consciousness through social media. In this neoliberal hellscape, Pfizer is the “ruling class” choice,” the “hot people choice,” owing to a small edge in efficacy, minimal health risks, and a silent P in the name.

Upon reflection, I feel ashamed that the combination of Pfizer scarcity and the risks of AstraZeneca, no matter how small, left me feeling a little bit like I was choosing Passion Pop over Veuve Clicquot, despite the outcome being the same.

Maya* secured a Pfizer vaccination alongside an eligible family member at the beginning of June, while not being eligible herself. She felt ethically conflicted, but was swayed at the insistence of her family member and the experience of relatives overseas.

“There’s people that are very susceptible to messaging about the health risks, and they’re not going to take any chances,” she says.

She didn’t post about it on social media, anticipating the potential for jealousy and backlash. She says that the lack of a clearly communicated timeline from the government had brought forward her family’s concern to protect itself.

She later found out that she would have been eligible for Pfizer anyway through her work in the disabilities sector. If she were making the choice now, she would get AstraZeneca.

Seemingly as a recourse from oblique government messaging, posting about your vaccination status has become its own form of social currency, bridging a gap from potential hesitancy to solidarity.

For Billie, who opted for AstraZeneca as soon as GPs could deliver it to younger people in July, the act of sharing it to social media was essential.

“I wanted to spread the information that it is possible for people in our age group to get vaccinated without impacting people that needed [Pfizer] more… there is a utility in getting that critical mass of people seeing people get vaccinated,” he says.

The change in availability may have also contributed to a change in perception on social media. Earlier in the rollout, it was often hard not to see vaccine posts as tantamount to virtue signalling. Yet today, the feeling is different. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t open Instagram or Twitter to find peers chronicling their vaccine experiences, demystifying side effects and providing reassurance as we wait for tomorrow’s news.

While clandestine arrangements that reflect pre-existing social privilege continue to the collective surprise of no-one, sharing on social media has become an important tool for reassuring those still impacted by uncertainty.

* name changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.

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