A few weeks ago, I received my invitation for the Covid vaccine, as part of the Swedish national vaccination programme. I was asked to confirm or decline promptly. Logically, I should have been overjoyed to already be at the top of the list of those in line for the vaccine, since I know millions are impatiently waiting, and are likely to be waiting for many long months to come. Yet, to be honest, my immediate reaction was one of fear and hesitation.
I have never been vaccinated in my life, so how would my body react? And I am a polio survivor. That virus is still in my body and is likely to have affected the way my immune system reacts. Had the people who developed and tested the vaccines even considered a case like mine? Did they really know what they were doing, and would they be able to take my specific situation into account? Here a lifetime of seeing how society - including the medical system – has consistently disregarded my individual needs and circumstances (just as it disregards those of millions of other persons with disabilities) led to a vague feeling of unease and misgivings. If they have not been able to grasp even the basics of accessibility, would they even care?
At the same time, I was unhappy about such fears. Was I such a fearful person? I have experienced war in Syria. This is something I obviously do not want to face again, but which I was able to cope with. But putting such exceptional situations to the side, here in Sweden I navigate countless dangerous situations each day, where a bump in a pavement or a moment’s inattention from an assistant could lead to serious injury. In most ordinary and daily situations, as a person with a disability, I face risk, where a person with no disability would be safe. Anticipating dangers and avoiding injury is an unavoidable nuisance, it takes time and mental energy, but doesn’t lead to the kind of unsettling fear I had concerning reactions to this vaccine I was being offered.
So where was the problem? I have wondered if it could have something to do with my experience of polio. This little virus, once it had entered my body, changed the course of my life in every conceivable way. Was I subconsciously afraid that introducing parts of a virus in my body through a vaccine could lead to something equally dramatic? And there was the fact that this was the very first time in my life that I was considering a vaccination. This was not due to any deliberate decision by myself or my parents, but just the chance circumstances of my life, with a childhood spent between Syria and Spain, and where all attention was focused on treatment for the sequels of polio. I hadn’t actually thought about the matter before and asked my mother for details. My mother said it was a long time ago, she had difficulties remembering what exactly had happened and why. It was clear that vaccination was never at the top of her concerns and worries at the time, although you might think it would be. After all, if my own situation today is so exceptional here in Sweden, it is thanks to general vaccination, which has saved countless families from the worries my mother had to struggle with.
To process my hesitations and be able to answer the invitation, I asked friends, relatives, and acquaintances for advice. Their replies fell into two categories. People working in the field, with a scientific or medical background, all were certain that I should accept the vaccination. They were able to give me clear answers, based on scientific evidence and public health perspectives. But people who did not have a scientific background all advised me to decline the invitation.
The answers I received from laypeople were not equally clear or based on technical scientific evidence. Instead, these answers reflected a general uneasiness and distrust, not so different from my own hesitations. Yes, authorities were requesting people to take the vaccine, but what value does such information have since authorities have a track record of misleading people? Why believe that authorities cared about the well-being of people when in so many cases it was clear that people’s health and well-being were very far down on their list of priorities? None of the information on Covid had been clear or transparent throughout the pandemic, so the vaccination campaign appeared to the people I asked as likely just more examples of political opportunism.
Getting contradictory answers from the friends I asked, I tried to do some research on my own. I asked people who had been vaccinated. Some had no reaction at all, some got a bit sick, but none had serious reactions. Clearly, reactions to the vaccine were highly individual. Could I get an idea of how my own reaction would be?
On the internet, I learned that there were many vaccines and many companies involved. Companies and countries were playing strategic games to carve out a market, to gain geopolitical leverage, to put their adversaries in a difficult position. A lot of money seemed to be involved. The WHO was urging countries and companies to consider the urgent situation of the world’s population. Cooperation was needed, exchange of information, disregarding feuds and profits. Nobody seemed to be listening. In rich countries, people were impatient to travel and be able to go on holiday again. In poor countries, people were worried about survival. Global cooperation was not on the agenda. None of this answered my personal question. At the end of the day, I had to ask myself.
Should I avoid this uncertain situation and decline? Or should I take the vaccine to protect myself and others? Looking at the worst-case scenarios, I finally thought: if I take the vaccine and it goes well, all is well. But if my immune system reacts in an unexpected way, I will be helping scientists to discover one of the problems with the vaccine, and thereby also contributing to finding a solution, so that others would not encounter that problem.
In big situations, like this pandemic, we all need to contribute. By avoiding spreading the virus, being considerate, taking the vaccine to slow down the spread even further. Nurses and medical staff are sacrificing their own health to save others. My brother, for instance, caught the virus last month, working as a doctor at a Hamburg medical centre. For six months, he had been keeping a distance from his newborn baby, for fear of bringing the virus from his work back to his home. Around the world, scientists are working day and night against the clock to keep up with the mutations of this virus. Someone like myself does maybe not have so much to contribute with, but taking the vaccine was the least I could do.
On the day I went to get the jab, despite everything that I had learned about the scientific and moral reasons for taking the vaccine, I was still feeling nervous. I felt that in a sense I was now donating my body to science, in a kind of experiment. A feeling of something strange and mysterious - since I had no experience, I did not know what to expect.
The vaccination took some seconds, and then I had to wait fifteen minutes before I could leave. I felt perfectly fine. Today, I just have a little pain in my upper arm where I got the jab. No side effects, except feeling a bit tired and sleepy. Though that could be the effect of relief after so many doubts and hesitations….
Stay safe - will keep you updated!