Getting jabbed in New York: Vaccines for a sick system?

Getting vaccinated in New York was my only good medical experience in the US, ever.

People lined up for free vaccines, Grand Central, New York City [Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

It was not my intention to get vaccinated against coronavirus in the United States of America.

Though I was born and raised in the US, I had abandoned it in 2003 in favour of global meandering through countries that, unlike my homeland, did not give me panic attacks – and where people behaved like human beings rather than alienated automatons.

I had not so much as set foot in the US since 2015, in the interest of my mental health and of avoiding eternal debt in the event of some sort of medical emergency – such being the perils of life in capitalist civilisations where basic rights like healthcare are converted into punitive, for-profit enterprises.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, I had gotten stuck in a village on Mexico’s Oaxacan coast (not complaining), from where I had planned to travel to Cuba as soon as the Cuban government had finished vaccinating its domestic population and embarked on its promise to jab all foreign visitors to the island.

Cuba, which is developing no fewer than five homegrown COVID-19 vaccines, seemed like the obvious vaccination destination for me given my history of pleasant medical encounters with Cuban doctors in Havana as well as in Venezuela – one of more than 150 countries where Cuba has dispatched healthcare personnel as part of its decades-long policy of medical diplomacy.

The US has shown nothing but contempt for Cuba’s otherwise acclaimed medical missions – since the preferred US policy of bombing other countries is clearly more, you know, diplomatic.

Whereas in the US my doctors’ appointments had been more reminiscent of criminal trials – involving massive amounts of paperwork, condescension, and induced sensations of guilt for having failed in one or more aspects of health – the medical attention that had been provided to me by Cuban doctors had been not only free of charge but characterised by simple and genuine humanity.

In other words, you got the feeling that the healthcare workers actually cared – and that the service they offered was an act of solidarity between equal beings.

This approach stood in stark contrast to that of, say, the emergency room doctor in Austin, Texas, who had alternately gasped in horror and scolded me for the blood cascading out of my body due to complications following an operation on my cervix.

Then there were the visits to the psychiatrist at my university in New York City circa 2002, who did little to conceal her conviction that I was a rich white kid endeavouring to use her parents’ insurance to acquire anxiety medication for recreational purposes.

In reality, I was a rich white kid endeavouring to use her parents’ insurance to acquire anxiety medication in order to be able to sit through class – and, more broadly, sit through the US – without having a nervous breakdown and fleeing to the toilet to cower in a stall and wish nonexistence upon herself.

To be sure, having to prove my mental anguish in the face of sceptical disdain did not help much with the whole anxiety thing.

Even so, I enjoyed a position of incalculable privilege compared with those lacking the resources to seek psychological and other relief in a neoliberal hell that breeds and thrives on mass and individual strife.

The US’s obscene economic stratification and inequality exacerbate alienation in general and pulverise interhuman bonds, but it is the racialised lower classes who are disproportionately deprived of healthcare needs – while also being effectively pathologised themselves.

It is a sick system, to say the least.

Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when in the midst of waiting in Mexico for my Cuban plans to materialise, the universe conspired to haul me back to the homeland for a brief stay in Manhattan. Upon my arrival, a friend informed me that he was taking me to get vaccinated.

Before I was able to launch into preemptive panic attacks, he politely drew attention to the fact that I was being irresponsible and absurd, and assured me that I could still get my anti-imperialist Cuban vaccine on top of the imperialist one.

And so it was that, on August 3, I found myself at New York’s Grand Central Terminal – no doubt one of the more spectacular venues in which to be poked with a needle – digging my fingernails into my friend’s skin in anticipation of the syringe containing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that was about to puncture my upper arm.

In the end, the experience was painless for everyone except him. I had been asked a minimal number of questions at the reception desk by a gracious Asian woman and then passed along to the Hispanic man who had jabbed me – all the while encouraging me to focus my energy on clawing my companion rather than on contemplating the size of the instrument he was wielding.

Vaccine administered, I was directed to sit in a chair for 10 minutes and was then gifted a free weeklong New York City metro card by a chipper Black woman who also directed me to the obligatory post-vaccination photo op zone.

Shockingly efficient and free of the oppressive financial transactions that define healthcare in the US, my vaccination episode stood out as evidence that it is in fact possible to inject a dose of humanity into a panorama that is predicated on just the opposite.

Lest I start tripping over myself in banal euphoria, however, it bears underscoring that nice people providing free coronavirus vaccines in Grand Central is hardly the solution to the US’s ills – particularly when the pharmaceutical industry that is making bank off of the pandemic plays a significant role in US neoliberal malaise in the first place.

As it so happens, the vaccination drive is also plagued by issues stemming from the US’s systemic racism. A recent article by Elaine Batchlor in The Atlantic, titled “I’m a Black Doctor. My Mom Still Won’t Get Vaccinated”, delves into some of the reasons for mistrust of the US healthcare system.

For example, Black Americans “experience higher rates of illness and lower life expectancy than other demographic groups”, and a 2020 study conducted at George Mason University “demonstrated that Black infants are three times more likely to die than white babies when cared for by white doctors”.

As for Batchlor’s 93-year-old mother’s own run-ins with US healthcare, these include improperly performed X-rays for a broken arm that caused her to “scream … in agony until she lost consciousness” – after which every subsequent trip to the hospital “has been fraught with anxiety on top of needless discomfort and pain”.

And while my own version of American medical anxiety obviously pales in comparison, it did ease my mind just a bit to see that maybe – just maybe – it does not always have to be business as usual.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.