Susan Estrich: Who gets what, when, and how

Summary: Which was a little how I felt when my Twitter-following daughter called in the middle of the day to say she was online getting me a vaccination appointment for a few days later. It didn't feel like science at all.

A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sits on a table at the Allisonville Meadows Assisted Living off of Allisonville Road on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Fishers, Ind. (Grace Hollars/IndyStar)

"Yay for science," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , said quietly as famed photographer Annie Leibovitz got the shot, no pun intended.

Hooray, indeed. Science worked. Science — that is, people — managed to do in one year what usually takes 10 to 15 years.

There is science. And there is political science.
Political science is the study of "who gets what, when, and how," Harold Lasswell, professor of POLS 100 at Wellesley College, said — as good a definition as any I've encountered since.

Those who practice politics are in the business of answering those questions.
Rarely is it all as transparent as it is now, with the miracle of the other kind of science, and 50 states and hundreds of counties forced to answer those questions under many microscopes.
The "what" here is nothing less that the gift of life — a risk-free walk through the valley of the shadow of death, a COVID-19 get-out-of-jail-free card.

It's priceless, should you be the one who needs it, worthless if you're not.
In Florida , a nursing home reportedly used some of its initial supply to attract and reward donors. People were appalled.
There are some things that should not be commodified, like organs and children.
An interesting footnote is that we have more vaccines than poorer countries because we paid more. And Israel paid even more.
So who gets it? If we were in the original position, what would we say? Give it to those who need it most? Give it to those who we need most? Give it to those who are most adept at dealing with constantly crashing vaccine websites?
Science doesn't tell us to leave it to the states, that 50 different solutions will be better than a single one. Politics does.
Science tells us that older Hispanic and Black Americans have a greater risk of dying of COVID-19.
Should they go first?
Does the Constitution allow it?
In California , the website says, "65 and older."
But there is space to enter an access code, which was supposed to be distributed in poor communities of color. And where it says ZIP code, well-meaning colleagues advise putting down one in East LA rather than your own, unwittingly undermining one of the last vestiges of an effort they would almost surely support to prioritize poor Black and Hispanic residents.
The location of the vaccine super sites surely does.
If these were polling places, the courts would move them. As it is, we drive to them, and feel grateful.
Every citizen may be entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens of every other state, but when it comes to the vaccine, we are back to the federal system. Fifty different versions of "science"? No. Fifty different versions of political science.
We are not close to vaccinating all the older people, and yet, many states including California have started expanding the categories. To whom? And why?
Teachers? I'm a teacher. We have teachers in the family. I'm all for vaccinating teachers. But if it's not realistic to think we will vaccinate all teachers in time to reopen school, why are teachers ahead of, say, sick people?
Restaurant workers?
People with asthma?
People with lupus?
Those with mental illness and depression?
I remember watching television when they pulled the numbers in the national lottery to determine who would be drafted and likely sent to Vietnam. To have such life-and-death decisions determined by pure chance took my breath away.
Which was a little how I felt when my Twitter-following daughter called in the middle of the day to say she was online getting me a vaccination appointment for a few days later. It didn't feel like science at all.
Lucky. Blessed.


Susan Estrich can be reached at

Susan Estrich
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