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Vaccine envy is real – here’s how to quell that green-eyed monster

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 17, 2021

A health care worker prepares a dose of China's Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine during the resumption of priority vaccination at a vaccination center in Brasilia, Brazil, on Feb. 17. The local government resumed its vaccination program for the priority group of elderly people over 79 after the four-day carnival recess.  (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)
A health care worker prepares a dose of China's Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine during the resumption of priority vaccination at a vaccination center in Brasilia, Brazil, on Feb. 17. The local government resumed its vaccination program for the priority group of elderly people over 79 after the four-day carnival recess. (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)
By Angela Haupt Special to the Washington Post

The coronavirus vaccine rollout has been chaotic and confusing in many states, leaving some elderly residents and front-line workers unprotected while those further down the priority list have been able to obtain shots. That’s leading to a new affliction: vaccine envy.

“Somebody’s got to be the first to say it,” said Aaron Foley, 36, a writer in New York. He grew up in Detroit, where he says the rollout is going well, and every time he opens Facebook, he sees another vaccine selfie from family and friends still there.

“There’s starting to be a lot of people in my orbit, one by one, who are getting their first dose,” Foley said. “I think the envy might come from everybody takes the picture of them either getting the shot or posting the little vaccine card” on social media sites. “It’s getting to be more and more of an endurance race. The frustrating part is we’re so close, yet so far away.”

Michele Parisi, 52, who works in health care communications in the San Francisco Bay area, likens the wait to standing in line for concert tickets. “And you’re like, OK, it’s a two-hour line, but I’m happy to wait as long as it’s orderly and we’re going in turn. But when I see people jumping the line, I start getting really anxious and upset. And that’s how I’m starting to feel about vaccines.”

Who gets vaccinated first varies from state to state, but, in most parts of the country, health officials are still focused on vaccinating front-line essential workers, those in long-term care facilities and people ages 75 and older, as well as those with certain pre-existing conditions. A potentially long wait – paired with news stories about real and perceived inequities in delivery – has spawned armies of green-eyed monsters.

Debates about vaccine access are dripping with tension: Former basketball star Charles Barkley, for example, recently said NBA players “deserve some preferential treatment” in getting vaccinated because they pay high taxes. And a Manhattan SoulCycle instructor apologized after getting the vaccine early by presenting herself as an “educator.”

It’s not surprising that vaccine envy is rising, said Ash Nadkarni, an associate psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. The pandemic has fueled anxiety, depression, loneliness and uncertainty, all of which can feed into envy. “The fear early on was expansive,” she said.

“For a lot of people, that settled into the doldrums of every day being like ‘Groundhog Day’ – and an inability to have a sense of freedom or control over their lives. Now, it seems like a panacea is available to all of us, and I think a lot of people feel a great deal of urgency around obtaining that. They finally see an opportunity to regain a sense of control.”

Wanting something others have is “one of the most painful feelings of the human psyche,” said Eric Zillmer, a neuropsychology professor at Drexel University. “We all want the vaccine, and it seems accessible; it’s not like a villa in Beverly Hills. But envy is like a weed. It starts growing, and if you don’t prune it, it will cover the entire tree.”

Here are strategies that can help stave off vaccine envy – or at least make living with it more tolerable.

Acknowledge how you feel

“Don’t pretend you don’t feel this,” said Susan Whitbourne, a professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “And don’t get mad at yourself for feeling this way. People say, ‘I’m a terrible person. I resent the fact that Grandma got vaccinated.’ You’re not a terrible person.”

Brushing off envy, or burying it instead of acknowledging it, isn’t helpful, she said. The only way to fight envy is to be emotionally honest with yourself about what you’re feeling and why.

Reframe the situation

Envy causes a certain blindness, Zillmer said. Instead of focusing on how the rollout affects you, consider the bigger picture: “If everybody gets vaccinated, it actually helps us, right? We forget about that; we’re just thinking about ourselves. But this entire process of vaccination only works if everybody gets vaccinated,” he said.

Zillmer was referencing herd immunity, the concept that a disease is less likely to spread when enough of the population has become immune to it through previous infection or vaccination. “So, the fact that people are getting needles into their arms means it’s going to be a healthier place for us to be around.”

Focus on managing your health

If waiting to get vaccinated makes you anxious, channel that anxiety into staying healthy. That includes eating well, exercising, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. “Because ultimately, we’re still going to need those,” Whitbourne said. “The problem is if people think, ‘Oh, the vaccine is here! I can throw all these behaviors away.’ ” Acknowledging that the vaccine is not a pass to engage in all the activities you miss can help keep envy in check.

Practice mudita

Mudita is a form of meditation that originates from Buddhism. This is about learning to relish other people’s well-being, Nadkarni said. “The idea is to cultivate an appreciative joy at the success and fortune of others,” she said. “Joy isn’t zero sum. Because somebody else’s joy goes up doesn’t mean yours should go down. It’s more that there’s a sense of infinite joy that could be available to everybody regardless of the circumstances.”

Try emotional brain training

Laurel Mellin, a health psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, attributes vaccine envy to “stress overload.” One way to ease that stress and break free of unhelpful thoughts, she said, is a method she developed called emotional brain training. The first step is to let loose and unleash negative emotions: “Say, ‘I feel angry that I can’t get the vaccine. I can’t stand it. It’s so unfair, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,’ ” Mellin suggested.

Then, move on to expressing other feelings, such as what you’re sad about and what you fear. Finally, give voice to a couple of positive emotions. For example: “I feel grateful that I’m alive, I feel happy there’s a vaccine, and I feel secure that someday I’ll get it,” Mellin said. Repeating this process can help quash envious feelings, making room for more positive ones such as gratitude that vaccines were developed so quickly.

Get informed

Do research online or talk with your doctor to better understand when it might be your turn to get vaccinated. As Nadkarni points out, it’s easier to cope with an unknown when there’s a specific time frame to focus on, even if it’s far off. “If people know, ‘OK, I’ll be up for this in the third wave, in April,’ that’s a piece of information that creates a greater sense of control and certainty,” she said.

Spring into action

It takes 7 ½ minutes for Zillmer’s water to start boiling on the stove. He knows because he counted as the minutes crept by. “It’s the longest 7 ½ minutes if I just watch it,” he said, and that holds true for most things we’re anticipating.

Instead of sitting and stewing while you await your turn to get vaccinated, use the time productively: Sign up for waiting lists at hospitals or pharmacies, or help older friends and family members get in line. “That way, you’re not really waiting. You’re trying to solve a problem,” Zillmer said. “You’re also flipping the script. You’re not a victim; you’re initiating.”

Future reflection

Reflect on what will make you proud in the future. Parisi, the San Francisco mom struggling to stave off vaccine envy, said her mind has darted to uncomfortable scenarios: Is there a back-alley way to secure vaccinations for her family? What if she got a call from a hospital saying it had an extra dose of a vaccine; would she take it even if she knew someone else might need it more?

Her family’s ethos throughout the pandemic has been to do what they consider the right thing: not spending the holidays with relatives, for example, to keep socially distant. “In two years, hopefully this will be behind us, and I won’t look back and go: ‘Oh, God, I’m kind of ashamed of how I behaved,’ ” she said. “I want to look back and say: ‘I’m really proud of the way our family did what we should have done.’ ”

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