On December 8, an 81-year-old man in the UK named William Shakespeare, who had been hospitalized after a stroke, became one of the first people in the world to receive a clinically approved and fully tested coronavirus vaccine. Since then, we have been watching needles penetrate the upper arms for more than a month. Like many early Covid-19 vaccinations, Shakespeare was watched by journalists. The video of it can be seen on dozens of news sites, each with a large part of their name in the headline. In the video he is sitting in a wheelchair. A nurse takes a stack of health cards from his lap; Another rolls up the sleeve of his hospital gown. "Relax, relax," she says, wiggling the pale flesh of his arm. Then she lifts the needle and dips it, causing both a slight jar and an odd satisfaction. Cameras click in the background. Shakespeare barely flinches. The nurse withdraws the needle, dabs his arm gently, and rolls the sleeve back down.
All of these vaccination videos announce that, even if it isn't here, the end of the pandemic is at least imminent. The videos are weird too: strangely intimate, almost voyeuristic. Even seeing someone's bare upper arm, so often paler than the rest of their body, can be terrifying. We observe an act of caring with all of its intimacy and vulnerability. Sometimes the spectacle feels invasive, like seeing pictures of someone wincing frailly in pain. In other cases, it is cheering when health workers get gunshots and break out in masked smiles of relief.
Most of the time it's anti-climactic. There is very little drama when someone gets a shot. On the "Today" show in December, a spokesman for the University of Florida Health Center in Jacksonville tried to stir up excitement before a nurse was vaccinated live. "Are you easily scared?" he asked. No, she said. "You were afraid of working on the Covid ward every day?" he asked. Yes, she nodded. The network started an on-air stopwatch that ran for just six seconds. The theater of network television falls flat before such a routine medical procedure. After Shakespeare's shot, the nurse asks him if he felt it and he says no. Not even a small tail after all that.
Watch a shot Hugging someone is largely devoid of drama, but the surrounding choreography and presentation of the moment can be fascinating. Lots of early vaccinations are done in hospitals and nursing homes, and the videos seem to offer some kind of narrative closure, some hope in environments ravaged by the virus. This has also shown what opportunism feels like as governors and other officials proudly float in the places their governments failed to protect, as if a debt had been repaid.
Answers to your vaccine questions
If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine?
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.
When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination?
Life will not return to normal until society as a whole receives enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries approve a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible for people to spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild or no symptoms. Scientists don't yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.
Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination?
Yeah, but not forever. The two vaccines that may be approved this month clearly protect people from contracting Covid-19. However, the clinical trials that produced these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected with the coronavirus can spread it while they don't have a cough or other symptoms. Researchers will study this question intensively when the vaccines are introduced. In the meantime, self-vaccinated people need to think of themselves as potential spreaders.
Will it hurt What are the side effects?
The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection is no different from the ones you received before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. However, some of them have experienced short-lived symptoms, including pain and flu-like symptoms that usually last a day. It's possible that after the second shot, people will have to plan to take a day off or go to school. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system's encounter with the vaccine and a strong reaction that ensures lasting immunity.
Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?
No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any given point in time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive for a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell's enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can hold for a few days at most before it is destroyed.
Then there are the videos of politicians being vaccinated themselves: Joe Biden, Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others, all of whom are exposing their arms. The public health case for this is straightforward. These images can help convince people across the political spectrum to take a vaccine when public confidence in them can be shaky. Vaccinations on television have built trust since the days of polio: in 1956, Elvis Presley was vaccinated before appearing live on "The Ed Sullivan Show" behind the scenes. Even so, there are those who resent that officials minimized the risk of virus crossings, and there are also members of Congress who say they don't get the vaccine in front of higher-risk groups. Nor is the theater of vaccinations always effective. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists seized a photo of Nancy Pelosi, claiming her vaccination was fake. She dutifully provided even more photo evidence that she had actually received a real picture.
Political figures who receive the vaccine are seen in a moment of unique vulnerability, not just physically but in their self-expression. Men can't wear their shirt and tie uniform (the sleeves don't roll up well), so Biden got his first shot in a fake turtleneck that made him look unusually boyish. Women have to face the risk of appearing vulnerable in the first place. Ocasio-Cortez posted all of her experience on Instagram in explanatory sections: her walk through the convention halls, a photo of the form she filled out, a self-recorded video of the needle entering her arm, and a selfie with other newly vaccinated members of Congress. Pence's staging featured militaristic overtones in front of an American flag and monitors with the slogans "Operation Warp Speed" and "Safe and Effective". Rubio tweeted a picture of his vaccination along with what felt to prevent ridicule. "I know I looked away from the needle and yes, I know I need a tan, but I am so confident that the # Covid19 vaccine is safe and effective that I decided to take it myself" he wrote over a picture of himself with compressed eyes.
These videos from Vaccinations are another constant reminder of the past year that people have bodies, that we are prone to pain, disease and death. Here, too, we see skin, muscles and obesity, the sensitive areas of the young, the frailty of the elderly. The images are tied to the realities of the human body, which is part of what makes them so resistant to theater. You have no real climax. When all goes well, the body seems to be barely reacting. After that, the recipient waits a little for surveillance and then walks away. You're not immune even suddenly. There's a gap between what the vaccine promises – ending a pandemic, protecting the endangered, radically expanded possibilities of everyday life – and what it actually is: a simple shot in the arm.
Even those gun shots aren't that easy. The introduction of vaccines in the US and much of the world so far appears to be another example of the rash government responses to the pandemic. State and city officials argue over who should come first; many people refuse vaccinations; Indolence at almost every step has resulted in doses of our long-awaited vaccines being thrown away unthinkably unused. Meanwhile, infections are soaring well beyond the levels that caused such horror last spring, and a year of suffering – unemployment, unpaid rent, business closings – continue to mount. There is something anti-climactic about these vaccination videos. They come to realize that these recordings don't offer anything like the narrative closure we're looking for because we're not near the end yet.