I want the vaccine. I have rarely left my house during the past nine months — if you try, you can find a way to have almost anything delivered — because someone in our pod is being treated for cancer, and my kids and I don’t take risks.
But I’m not complaining. I live in a mostly white section of Los Angeles, and the COVID-19 infection rate here is 10 times less than that in East LA, which is 96% Hispanic. My son’s longtime girlfriend teaches high school biology and chemistry to classes whose students are 100% Hispanic and poor. I teach law school, a much easier crowd during the pandemic. Plus, I can practice law at my desk inside and, if necessary, meet with clients in my backyard conference room, previously known as a picnic table.
The neighborhoods being slammed in LA are the ones full of essential workers living in apartments with multiple generations or in even smaller apartments crammed into buildings that don’t have Wi-Fi for the kids attending school and don’t have nearby backyards or parks. The greatest risk on my side of town, more than one friend has suggested, is posed by the folks who come here from those neighborhoods to clean our houses and take care of our children, jobs they desperately need to provide for their children.
So, who should get the vaccination first once the doctors and nurses and EMTs have been vaccinated?
Prisoners? Should they get it ahead of law-abiding citizens who face elevated risks because of underlying conditions? Where do firefighters fit? Should police officers go before people over the age of 75? And where do young people with serious underlying conditions go in the line?
Would you favor not vaccinating your mother or your grandmother who has diabetes until all the prisoners in for murder have been vaccinated? Should younger people with underlying conditions go ahead of older people without them, or ahead of prisoners?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines based on its evaluation of risks. But those guidelines are laden with political dynamite whose explosive force will vary from state to state.
I can see the logic of inoculating prisoners. It’s just that I can’t get my head around the idea of protecting prisoners at the expense of law-abiding people we love who are at elevated risk. And I’m not sure California Gov. Gavin Newsom, now famous for his dinner at The French Laundry, could survive politically if he were to become the hero of the prisoners’ lobby, to the extent it exists. With shades of my old nemesis Willie Horton, all you would have to do is run a split screen with the faces of law-abiding folks who have died on one side and the mug shots of prisoners in solitary who got the vaccine before them on the other side. I should add that I think the prison guards deserve priority; it’s the prisoners I have trouble with. And as more than one commentator has suggested, if prisoners are getting vaccines, we should round up all those who were released early because of COVID-19, vaccinate them and then lock them up to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Within every group of law-abiding folks, should Hispanics (49% of LA County’s population) and Blacks (9% of the county population, most of whom live in the same poor neighborhoods that are now majority Hispanic) go ahead of white people?
And, because I have no doubt that there would be people who would go to court claiming that putting whites last is racial discrimination, could any such system survive judicial scrutiny under federal and state constitutions? Or would the courts take over the business of setting priorities?
Cable news will no doubt find lawyers who are happy to scream absolutes — absolutely yes or absolutely no — at one another, making for an entertaining but largely useless exercise. Because it’s the room between the absolutes where I sit — where I think most people do — trying to find a balance between risks, fairness and love. It is, like too many things these days, a life-or-death question.
Susan Estrich is a lawyer and political commentator.