To vax or not to vax

In Nepal or the US, having an option to vaccinate or not is a matter of privilege

I knew I wanted to get vaccinated as soon as the Covid-19 jabs were made available to the general public in the US, and that when it was my turn I would have access to it.

It was not the same for people in Nepal, and I remember family and friends back home telling me how hard it was to get a vaccine earlier this year. And a lot of it depended on whether you had the right connections.

People in Nepal were struggling to find their first doses, whereas in the US people did not want to get vaccinated against Covid-19 despite a raging pandemic. Those without access to jabs were confused with those who did not want to get vaccinated.

All international students studying in the US must provide proof of immunisations against MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella), Varicella Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis) and Meningitis.

I completely understand the reasoning behind requiring those vaccinations, it is to keep people safe, and it never entered my mind to argue the logic.

Did I ever feel like my freedoms were being curtailed because I needed to show proof of those inoculations? No. Did I feel like someone was infringing on my choice? No. Did I have a problem getting the necessary vaccine for the greater good? No.

So why is it different with the Covid vaccine? The main reason to be vaccinated was so that I do not spread the infection further, as well as protect myself. The sooner we all got vaccinated, the sooner we would be post-pandemic.

Which is why it surprised me that unlike Nepal, where the vaccine acceptance rate is 97%, many in the US were choosing to not to get the jab because it curtailed their freedom of choice. The anti-vaxxers were also anti-maskers — and the puzzling thing was that they would however not protest against wearing seat belts to abide by laws against drinking and driving.

They say Pfizer and Moderna have side effects. Of course they do, every modern medicine has some side effect. Even junk food has horrible side effects, but that hasn't stopped people from eating fries and burgers.

And while anti-vaxxers are worried about their health, they have not taken the time to consider the health of millions of others they directly or indirectly interact with.

I had spent most of my life in the US in liberal and progressive cities, so when I was met with the comparatively conservative crowd, I felt it was pointless to argue the subject because they had made up their minds and were not open to other opinions.

Nothing has brought out the gap between haves and have nots than the Covid-19 pandemic. The global gap between the jabbed and jabbed nots is growing, increasing the chances of mutant strains evolving.

In Nepal, we are not privileged enough to choose whether or not we will get a vaccine for a disease that has killed millions. We cannot even choose which vaccine we want: AZ-Covishield, VeroCell, J&J. We take whatever is available.

For most Nepalis, if there is a disease and there is a way to protect yourself from it, you just do it. There are no what-ifs.

The fact that you even have the option to decide if you want to get inoculated against the virus in a country which has the highest national total of fatalities from Covid-19 shows how privileged people are in the US.

When you are a daily wage workerresponsible for feeding and clothing your family, and when your government doesn’t give you a weekly unemployment allowance for staying at home unable to go to work, you want to return to your job as soon as possible. The only way to do that at the moment is to vaccinate and make it safe for everyone to be out again.

I would respect the choice of the anti-vaxers not to get vaccinated if they stayed home and did not interact with the public. But they are out and about (and without masks) claiming that it is their right to do so.

Being a citizen means having a sense of responsibility towards oneself and others and not using selfish excuses in the name of freedom to do whatever you want.

It is a sensitive topic, and those who are most vocal and against the vaccine seem to be also the least informed about masks, the climate emergency, guns, abortion and politics. They live in social media echo-chambers where algorithms expose them to ever more radical posts.

Recently, I asked a friend in the US if he had been vaccinated. Later, I was told that it is impolite to ask such questions. But if someone is out in public, mingling and exhaling, they need to be responsible about the health of those around them.

The boundary of an individual’s freedom is when it infringes on someone else’s freedom.

The decision not to be vaccinated is a matter of life or death for those not fortunate enough to have access to doses. While Americans are refusing to take booster third shots, 70% of Nepalis have not even got their first doses.

The next time I see a person drinking a beer while smoking a cigarette trying to rationalise their choice to not vaccinate, you know how that conversation will go.

I can already tell you that my Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave will be a lot of fun.

Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.

Anjana Rajbhandary