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Lobbying, Politics Barriers to Fair Access to Vaccines

Words by Leon Kaye
Vaccines

If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the racial and economic inequities in the U.S., the rush for vaccines has surely amplified them. And lobbying has played a role in who gets vaccinated first and who is left behind.

The U.S. vaccination queue has been politicized, which shouldn’t be surprising. Clearly, healthcare workers should be vaccinated against COVID-19 first. But after that group of essential workers, discussions over who’s next in line have led to an unfair race that is based on who’s better connected and wields more political clout.

Health authorities agree that older people in high-density assisted living complexes or nursing homes should be ranked highly in the vaccination line. But when considering seniors who are still relatively healthy, live comfortably in their homes and seldom need to go out, many argue it doesn’t make sense they should take precedence over the essential workers who work for delivery services, supermarkets or pharmacies — and therefore have constant exposure to people at all hours of the day. We can make a similar case for employees who produce the nation’s food supply. But here’s the problem: Senior citizens are a consistent and powerful voting bloc, so of course they have priority in states like Florida.

To their credit, more companies are offering to pay their employees to schedule those jabs in their arms — they include the likes of dollar store chains, Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s, Chobani and McDonald’s. But as more states prioritize the efficiency of their vaccination rollouts over specific communities, the numbers game is winning. That focus on efficiency over fair access, however, often comes at the expense of people of color — many of whom work within such industries as retail and on-demand delivery services yet may find themselves pushed to the back of the line.

The problem in part is the fact that some of the pharmaceutical companies’ COVID-19 vaccines require cold storage (extremely cold, in fact), so it's not as simple as sending a van to a supermarket lot and inoculating everyone at once. Yet many essential workers don’t have the luxury of going to the local fairgrounds or stadium to wait in line all day for the two necessary shots — remember, many companies that rely on low-wage labor also don’t offer their employees any sick time.

But what’s really driving inequity in access to vaccines is the reality that industries are wielding their political clout to jump the vaccination line.

Take the meatpacking industry for example — which, along with its political allies, has often thrown workers under the bus during the pandemic. One company even publicly blamed employees for becoming ill in large numbers, ignoring lapses in its own safety standards and the dubious public health decisions that played a large part in COVID-19 ravaging through rural communities.

Now, the same industry that largely escaped accountability for its role in failing to stop the spread is among the sectors lobbying to push its workers to the front of the line for vaccines.     

To sum up how the meat industry has conducted itself during this pandemic, know this: A close relationship with the previous presidential administration allowed meat industry lobbyists to draft an executive order that kept meatpacking plants open during the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, while dismissing health and safety concerns. A few months later, one of the industry's most powerful trade groups directly lobbied the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asking for priority in receiving vaccines and noting that cases within the industry have declined, without mentioning how these companies’ decisions during the crisis helped pour gasoline on the COVID-19 fire.

No one disputes that meatpacking workers, who work long shifts and do difficult work in close quarters, should receive vaccines before white-collar workers who have the luxury of staying home. But the makers of plant-based foods, organic farmers and local ranchers also find themselves in a situation where employees work closely together. The difference, however, is that they don’t have the connections in state capitals and Washington, D.C. from which the nation’s largest meat producers benefit.

If only the meatpacking giants would have put the same energy into ensuring their workers could stay safe last spring, but it’s clear this industry’s focus has been far less about employees' health and safety and more about profiting from a crisis.

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Image credit: Steven Cornfield/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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