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Robert A. George: The ugly world of vaccination politics

By Robert A. George Bloomberg Opinion

The Christmas gift many Americans were eager for this year arrived a few days early: a vaccine against COVID-19. Unfortunately, there is no such inoculation against political opportunism – which is exactly what those who criticize politicians for getting the vaccine are engaging in.

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recorded herself getting her COVID vaccine shot and shared it with her 8.2 million Instagram followers. This being 2020 (and this being AOC), her decision attracted a lot of criticism, much of it along the lines that she’s only 31 and not likely to face serious health issues if she contracts COVID. Then 49-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio also got his shot – and also found himself criticized, as a reckless hypocrite for getting it after having attended campaign rallies for President Donald Trump where few people wore masks.

As a matter of law, all members of Congress, as part of the legislative branch of government, are eligible to “cut the line” for a vaccine, regardless of their age, thanks to continuity-of-government protocols. Last week, under the same protocol, Vice President Mike Pence got his shot.

Still, the question is legitimate: Just because elected officials are allowed to get the vaccine, should they? Some congressional colleagues of Rubio and Ocasio-Cortez – including AOC ally and fellow squad-member Rep. Ilhan Omar – say the answer is no.

“We are not more important then frontline workers, teachers, etc. who are making sacrifices everyday,” Omar tweeted on Sunday. “Which is why I won’t take it. People who need it most, should get it.” Omar’s choice puts her in agreement with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul – maybe the first and last time that’s likely to happen.

But AOC has good reason, beyond a self-serving, jump-the-line one, for getting vaccinated. As she tweeted, she had to “weigh the potential misinfo consequences of what wld happen if leaders urged ppl to take a new vaccine that we weren’t taking ourselves.”

COVID has taken a terrible toll among Black and Hispanic communities. In the spring, when New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic’s first wave, Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx-Queens district was the epicenter of the epicenter. At one point the district, which is 58% Black and Hispanic, had more cases than all of Manhattan, despite having one million fewer inhabitants.

AOC is also right that there is skepticism about the vaccine in minority communities. Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with my sister. She lives in Atlanta, with her two daughters and our mother. “You’re not going to take that vaccine now,” she told me, in a friendly tone. It wasn’t a question. When I told her I didn’t have any concerns about the vaccine, she said that the speed with which it was developed made her nervous.

And, no, this wasn’t about Trump. My sister was wary about what she saw as a general rush to get vaccines approved. My pushback on the historic importance of the polio vaccine rollout was met with a reminder that a “bad” batch of live polio sent from a lab had led to infection and death. Restoring the public’s trust required getting Elvis Presley to take a shot just before going on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Our conversation probably wasn’t too dissimilar from those taking place among families across the country – particularly in Black and brown households. My sister didn’t bring up the Tuskegee experiment (our family is largely West Indian-born), but that episode – of Black men observed but untreated for syphilis over 40 years, until the experiment was ended in 1972 – still casts a long shadow.

There is probably no modern-day pop-culture equivalent of Elvis. So instead, America has members of Congress (and vice presidents and presidents-elect) getting vaccinated.

There are legitimate points on both sides of the debate over whether members of Congress should be rushing to get vaccinated. But on this issue, in the spirit of the holidays, maybe it’s appropriate to give our elected officials the benefit of the doubt.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.