Across the country, eligibility for the Covid-19 vaccine has been expanded to include almost everyone above the age of 16. It’s an easy headline to digest, and it makes us feel good about our country’s vaccine rollout. But headlines like these make it easier to forget that not everyone has gained access to vaccines. Who is getting left out or left behind? The distribution of vaccines inherently overlooks those who are historically misrepresented and ignored by the government. White people residing in the US are given priority, and “cut in line” to receive the first set of doses. This includes examples of rich white people going to low income communities in order to receive a dose. In doing so, historically ignored groups are being pushed aside to make room for the privileged.
Many of these marginalized groups within the United States that are struggling to get vaccinated include, but are not limited to, people experiencing homelessness, undocumented immigrants, and those who are incarcerated. These groups are mostly made up of people of color, which disproportionately impacts these communities when they are ignored by the government.
Individuals who are currently homeless are at a much higher risk of contracting Covid-19, yet they are among the groups struggling to receive vaccinations across the nation. The most recent statistic shows that about 580,000 people within the United States are experiencing homelessness, and their exposure to the virus continues to place this multitude of people at risk. This is without considering those who have underlying diseases, which increases their danger of being exposed to the virus. Up to 20 states have not prioritized vaccinating homeless people, let alone disclosed their plan in doing so. States have essentially disregarded an entire group of people in need of the same attention as the rest of the population. By ignoring these historically invisible populations, these states are exposing how easily health benefits can be denied from those who truly need it. In a country that so often prides itself in being generous and “free,” it frequently turns a blind eye towards its own citizens. This freedom only exists for certain groups of people, and everyone else is left behind to figure it out on their own. If this population were prioritized, medical providers would be allowed to bring the vaccines directly to shelters, which would make vaccinations more accessible. In denying homeless groups the safety and security brought by the vaccine, these states are denying them their basic human rights. Though a few of these 20 states have begun making advances in including people who are homeless, there is still much more that can be done to ensure their health and safety is being prioritized.
In New York, the vaccination of homeless populations has begun increasing. New York City’s homeless population has reached a staggering 53,000. Because of the pandemic, many citizens have become unemployed, which explains the increasing rates of homelessness. Many medical volunteers, such as those with the Department of Homeless Services, have been vaccinating people in shelters, or visiting exterior locations as well; since this effort has started, around 11,600 vaccine doses of the Johnson and Johnson shot have been administered. New York State is also making steps to vaccinate those who are unsheltered. Locations such as Albany and Midtown have spoken out about their prioritization of vaccinating the homeless, either by directly going to the shelters or through pop-up events. In Midtown specifically, the Coalition for the Homeless, CUCS, and Crossroads organized a pop-up vaccination event that managed to vaccinate twenty people in two hours. These organizations hope to do more pop-ups to ensure that they are reaching all populations who haven’t received a dose.
The work being done by these groups, and the city itself, ensures that marginalized populations within homeless communities are being helped and not pushed aside. Since about 90 percent of people sleeping in NYC’s shelters are Black and Hispanic, it only goes to show how disproportional these problems seem to be. The pandemic has negatively impacted the entire country as a whole, but the groups who have a long history of marginalization have endured the worst of it. Hopefully, other states will expand their efforts of vaccination accessibility to include homeless populations, since they are the most vulnerable population and deserve the same access as the rest of the country.
People who are incarcerated are five times more likely to be infected with Covid, and they are the most ignored when it comes to the distribution of vaccines world and country-wide. It’s estimated that around 500,000 Covid infections were the result of mismanagement within correctional facilities. But even with these statistics, states are still excluding incarcerated persons from their vaccination plans, solidifying the prejudice this country has created against those who are in prison. No life deserves less than another, but clearly this mentality is not held by many states who outright disregard prisoner’s rights to the vaccine. About 39 of 50 states have displayed their inclusion for incarcerated persons into their vaccine plans, but many of these declarations are vague and not fully concrete. The decision to not fully include incarcerated people the vaccine is rooted in a prejudice that has existed for hundreds of years. People don’t believe prisons to be deserving of the same treatment as other institutions within the US. This is disproportionately impacting those who are incarcerated, since Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of white people. The prison industrial complex, in all its corruption, legally allows the government to do what they wish with these communities. So it comes as no surprise that when Covid came along, they were at the bottom of the list of priorities. (To see the list of states, click here).
In New York State, it was recently ruled that all people within state-run prisons and jails must be prioritized for vaccination eligibility. Judge Alison Y. Tuitt made this ruling possible, stating that it was an unfair decision to keep incarcerated people excluded from the vaccines. Among the 50,000 incarcerated people in New York State, around 6,273 of them have gotten Covid, which only emphasizes the urgency for the vaccine in these high-risk institutions. About 2,500 prisoners, with eligible conditions, have received the first dose, and hopefully more will continue to receive the vaccine as it becomes more available.
Vaccine eligibility and accessibility also poses a large challenge for the immigrant population in the United States. New York State’s nonprofits and organizations are currently hard at work to make this a safe possibility for those who are eligible for the vaccine. Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN) has been working to get immigrants, both undocumented and not, vaccinated. Nic Abramson, UIDN’s treasurer, stated that with the help of Fernando Salazar (a local Pastor), they were able to “vaccinate about 160 people [in one] day.” This in itself is a large feat that shows how, when communities come together, real change can occur. Nic continued by mentioning that, “[they] are trying to set up another date like that,” and that UIDN has “a weekly food pantry, where [they] service about 100-140 families. And [UIDN] is setting up a table to sign people up for vaccines,” where people from the institute for family health “provides medical services for the community. They’re going to be there, to answer questions, and [they’ll] have people who are bilingual there to translate.” This work is being done with the knowledge that immigrants face large challenges in accessibility, problems which are only exacerbated in the context of vaccinations
Places where vaccines are administered, for example, often do not have translations or bilingual volunteers to guide non-English speakers through the steps. In many states, it has been reported that some websites ask for a social security number when registering for a vaccine. The solution is to call the website, and they will give you a set of digits to input for the social security section. However, not everyone knows this. This provides an unnecessary barrier that people can’t cross if they aren’t provided with the adequate information. And for undocumented immigrants specifically, there is a general distrust that can hinder community’s ability to receive a vaccine. With this distrust toward the government, it can be seen as risky to go to public locations where the vaccines are being administered. When the issues of marginalized communities become heightened, the importance of groups such as UIDN becomes more visible. They are doing the work that matters, the work that provides necessary services to communities that are not the “most important.” These kinds of organizations make sure that immigrant communities are being adequately represented, and make their needs the top priority. In doing so, they are ensuring equity is being fully realized for immigrant communities that are ordinarily left out of the conversation.
The vaccine’s solution has only further shown us how truly inequitable the world perceives different groups and even countries. As marginalized groups are denied access to this human right, countries around the world are being put on hold as “first world countries” stockpiled more than they needed. Rich countries have bought up 53% of the eight most promising vaccines, Canada being the first and the United States being the second. It’s being speculated that poorer countries will not reach full immunization until 2022 or 2023, whereas we have seen how easily it has become for non-marginalized communities to receive a dose in the US. These statistics border on imperialism, where rich white countries are permitting other countries in need to wait for something that should have been distributed in better proportions. This same idea can be seen within the US, where the populations that are ordinarily ignored face the same problems of inaccessibility and ineligibility that countries are facing on a larger scale.
It’s crucial to understand that solutions can only come through organizing and advocacy work that prioritizes unrepresented groups of people. And it’s through groups such as UIDN that the real work begins. Without selfless individuals, without advocacy groups, the country would not blink an eye at ignoring marginalized communities. Showing support and solidarity is detrimental to pushing back at the US’s habit of ignoring its most vulnerable.