Who’s First?

A few months ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was raging, I watched the movie Contagion. Even though it was made almost 10 years ago, it has eerily predicted almost every aspect of the last year: the China origin of the virus, the failed attempts to contain it, the government mismanagement, the quack treatments, masks and social distancing, and finally the discovery and distribution of a vaccine. While there are small differences between reality and the film (the movie virus is much deadlier), I find myself returning, in my head, to Contagion each time we reach a new phase in our real-life outbreak.

It is interesting to note the differences between fiction and reality in the case of the vaccine (spoilers ahead). In Contagion, the vaccine is a nasal spray that comes in a package that can be administered at home with minimal supervision. It also comes with a bracelet so that one can prove immunity. The distribution is handled by lottery based on one’s date of birth in order to fairly allocate the life-saving resource.

Again, the virus in the film is far deadlier than the coronavirus: there doesn’t seem to be a particularly vulnerable age group. Instead, everyone is more or less equally at risk, so a lottery seems to be the most equitable solution. Of course, we know that COVID-19 is most deadly for the elderly which is why it is being distributed to older people first, but Contagion offers an interesting alternative.

What if we distributed the coronavirus vaccine through a lottery system? There seemed to be a consensus around the idea of prioritizing health care workers and the elderly in long term care facilities, but the slow and inefficient pace of the rollout has raised questions about a better way to get shots in people’s arms. The administration is now urging states to offer the vaccine to anyone over the age of 65 and is not going to hold back second doses as originally planned.

The vaccine distribution raises all kinds of difficult ethical questions, which is why the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism released a teshuva, written by my classmate Rabbi Micah Peltz, that addresses some of these issues. Rabbi Peltz reaffirms that we Jews have an obligation to receive the vaccine unless our physician recommends against it. Also, our synagogues, schools, and other institutions can require employees, students, and congregants to be vaccinated. Jewish law also demands that we are equitable in the rollout of the vaccine. It should not be hoarded by rich countries nor should wealthy and privileged individuals use their money and connections to jump the line.

The ethical dilemmas raised by Rabbi Peltz will be discussed and debated in the months to come. While Jewish and secular law may allow a synagogue to require a vaccine to enter the building, this is not something we have asked for in the past. Would we actually refuse entry to a member who can’t prove they have been vaccinated?

As troubling as Contagion is to watch, there is some comfort from the end of the film as the vaccine rolls out to the public. Despite all the hardship and loss of a pandemic it is comforting to know that life can return to normal. New questions that we never thought we would have to address – who gets a vaccine first, what institutions can require it – will need to be answered, but our lives can have a Hollywood ending where we get to live happily ever after.

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