I have gotten many vaccines in my life. So has my cat. Hopefully, you have too. Not once have I ever asked what company manufactures the vaccine or how effective it is before receiving the shot. It never even occurred to me to do so.
I suspect this is how most people thought of vaccines until a few months ago when many of us enrolled in an informal crash course on vaccines. Many folks now consider themselves sufficiently expert on vaccines to know which of the three currently available coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. they want and which ones they do not.
Typically, the one people do not want is the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because the efficacy rate is lower than the Moderna and Pfizer ones—although it is still extremely effective at preventing serious illness or death—even though public health officials are unanimous in saying all of them are excellent and getting whichever one is available as soon as possible is the best course of action. In fact, more evidence shows that its efficacy grows over time, and it was also tested after Pfizer and Moderna, meaning it was tested on some unknown number of people who were exposed to COVID-19 variants. Pfizer and Moderna were tested prior to the widespread rise of variants. Still, many people aren’t listening.
There is a way to look at this as people trying to make informed decisions about their own health and therefore educating themselves on the various vaccine options. But that is not what is happening. People are doing the only thing they know how in order to regain some semblance of control over a pandemic and an economic climate that has largely ripped every last vestige of control from ordinary people. They’re shopping.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan perfectly illustrated this dynamic when he elaborated on why he turned down a shipment of Johnson and Johnson vaccines. Explaining the decision as if he just finished reading a Wirecutter article on the subject, Duggan said “Moderna and Pfizer are the best” and “I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the City of Detroit get the best.”
As Americans, we are conditioned to believe from an early age that buying things makes us good citizens. Whether or not this is the case, there is little doubt that shopping, and specifically acquiring new items by choice, generally makes people feel better. For example, a 2014 study from University of Michigan researchers published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found shopping is so effective at making people feel better—often called “retail therapy”—specifically because it restores a sense of control in the buyer, much more so than actively choosing not to buy something. When we choose to buy Old Spice deodorant instead of Dove or Speed Stick or Gillette or Right Guard or Axe or Degree we have tangible evidence of our own free will. Look, I bought Old Spice Sweat Defense Antiperspirant and not those other inferior deodorants that won’t keep my pits dry a full 24 hours. Take that, David Hume!
Deep down, we all know this is nonsense. Anyone who has stood in front of the deodorant rack for more than two minutes trying to decide which one to buy knows the final decision was arbitrary, quite possibly influenced by incoherent marketing campaigns. While even shopping in stores can be overwhelming, this paralysis of choice is multiplied online, especially with the rise of Wirecutter and other sites that review everything from cell phones to bed sheets to, yes, deodorant. But we have to lie to ourselves and take what little we can from the simple act of purchasing deodorant because the alternative is to face how little control we have over our lives.
On a very low level, I am sympathetic to people so desperate to get some semblance of control back into their lives they’re willing to turn down a perfectly good vaccine. Over the last year in particular, nearly everyone lost a lot of control over their lives from schools and workplaces closing to mass job loss causing economic hardship to public health mandates imposing all kinds of rules, both wise and hygiene theater, into our routines. Going outside requires following a set of strict guidelines and social norms to minimize the harm the pandemic is causing. Sometimes I find myself doing inexplicable things I didn’t do before all this like picking up a stick and waving it around like a sword or throwing snowballs at tree trunks for the same reason I am buying a lot more chocolate cake from my local bakery. There are some things I have to do just to remind myself I still can if I want to, that I still have control over some things (but not everything; sometimes the bakery is out of chocolate cake).
Of course, retail therapy and consumerism existed before the pandemic in deep, pernicious ways. Americans did this all the time. Thanks to the increasingly yawning chasm between people and companies that have lots of things and people and companies that have few things, those of us in the latter group—which is, of course, the vast majority of us—are increasingly lacking in viable options to improve our lives in any meaningful way. People are trapped in crushing medical or student debt. They can’t afford an actual house and pay exorbitant rent to live in a city with jobs. Or they work a job with bad benefits because of the monopolization in nearly every industry and the decline of worker power. So we end up buying shit. And that choice of what to buy is about the most choice we will exercise on a routine basis.
Until recently, vaccines were one of the few things that had not yet become just another commodity. But medicine in general has been in that realm for a long time with disastrous consequences. People talk about which hospitals are better than others, which medicine works better, the difference between name brand medicines and generics, whether to call an ambulance or take an Uber. If you’ve ever participated in this market-driven medical care process, though, it is quite likely you walked away feeling a lack of control rather than more of it after, say, getting charged $629 for a Band-Aid. “Shopping around” is good for some things, but not other things.
So it is peculiar, but not unexpected, some people are instinctively trying to vaccine shop. Still, vaccine shopping is a peculiar kind of shopping, because the customer is not really buying anything, and all of them will substantially change your life. Covid vaccines are free for the patient, at least at the point of care. The government has purchased them using our tax dollars. Stripping the actual economic benefit anyone might get from vaccine shopping—in an alternate universe where the vaccine wasn’t free, one imagines saving money on the jab by scoring a sweet deal on the Johnson & Johnson by sitting standby at the overnight Javits Center site—only underscores how desperate people are to regain some sense of control. There is literally no benefit, and in fact there are many costs to slowing down the vaccination rollout by being picky. Medical experts keep telling us this. People are so desperate for control they ignore them, to their own and all of our detriment.
That being said, vaccine shoppers may be onto something in a general sense. Even though we, the patients, aren’t technically customers in the vaccine exchange, we are, in some cases, the product. Chain pharmacies issuing vaccines are collecting reams of data on the patients getting vaccinated in the hopes of turning them into future customers. Personally, I don’t see the point. Most Americans don’t have any independent, locally-owned pharmacies left to shop at. No matter which deodorant you end up buying, you’ll end up at the same checkout counter, perhaps feeling a little bit better for making yet another wise purchase decision.
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