COVID vaccination tensions foreshadow a ‘racial generation gap’ and a resource competition
With the new Delta COVID-19 form spreading swiftly and vaccination boosters a distinct possibility, a new scramble for shots may easily reignite last December’s somewhat backroom policy battles over whether to prioritize age or race in assigning initial COVID-19 vaccine supplies. These little fights in Washington and state capitals serve as a precursor to more serious political confrontations resulting from what politically astute demographers refer to as a “racial generation gap.”
This sociological San Andreas fault line may put the interests of an older, predominantly white generation against those of a younger, much more diverse population. A primary concern has been a future funding conflict between “senior power” (high-turnout older white voters and advocacy groups such as AARP) mobilizing to preserve Medicare, Social Security, and public pension systems and younger minorities seeking social justice through improved job opportunities, schools, parks, and child care.
Rather than that, the first rumblings along this racial-generational split emerged last fall, when the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prioritized groups for initial limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine.
The central dilemma: Should an elderly, mainly white population be favored above those working in minority-heavy service occupations (who are more prone to contract and transmit COVID and its mutations)?
Seniors eventually prevailed in these early conflicts — but only narrowly. The early vaccination discussions established that senior authority is a threat rather than a reality. Race outweighs age in the prevalent awakened culture of the nation’s establishment. Vaccine politics demonstrated that seniors have a very small number of influential friends; political allies fluctuated and withered. The elderly protest generation of the 1960s requires a refresher course in awareness-raising and mobilization.
Indeed, last October, ACIP initially excluded older Americans totally from the second-highest vaccine 1b priority category — which includes frontline healthcare workers, nursing home employees, and residents.
Rather than that, the committee increased the “essential worker” categories, which include a sizable proportion of younger, ethnic minority service workers who are unable to work from home. While the majority of European countries immediately prioritized age in vaccination distribution, ACIP’s ethical framework placed a premium on “maximizing benefits, minimizing harm, promoting justice, and mitigating health inequities.”
However, racial rationing created legal and public relations complications. The advisory group allegedly pushed communities of color to the front of the vaccination queue while claiming not to. The ACIP’s head vehemently rejected this, but public outrage culminated in a late December compromise in which Americans over the age of 75 were finally added to the 1b group.
Politicians were more cautious about reawakening the sleeping monster of elderly voting strength. Texas and Florida governors quickly rejected CDC recommendations, placing residents over the age of 65 in the 1b group. With minor adjustments, 23 additional states and the Trump White House followed suit.
The AARP is often regarded as a lobbying behemoth for elderly. However, when it came to vaccine priority, it appeared to be caught between competing pledges to fight for Americans over the age of 50 while also promoting diversity and equity. Its public pronouncements were unexpectedly ambiguous, more subdued than forceful.
The simultaneous cautions about “fair and equitable allocation” and careful surveillance by race and ethnicity confounded calls to pay attention to seniors’ high death rates. (On CBS’s “Face The Nation,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins sidestepped a question on whether she would advise all governors to prioritize Americans over the age of 65 immediately.)
By March, low immunization rates for African Americans and Latinos had resurrected several governors’ original ethnic fairness agendas.
Governor Gavin Newsom of California reserved 40% of all new vaccination doses for the state’s “hardest hit communities” (heavily minority), as assessed by a “Healthy Places Index.”
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott stated unequivocally that those who identify as “Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC)” should be prioritized.
And a “60 Minutes” report accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of significantly favoring wealthy white towns at the expense of poor and minority ones, partially through an alleged “pay to play” system for DeSantis campaign supporters.
Americans over the age of 65 must mobilize more effectively. Age discrimination continues to be the most accepted kind of prejudice, and boomers in particular are unpopular. Indeed, seniors’ narrow vaccine triumphs reinforced preconceptions of aging boomers as rich, strong, and self-centered — as satirized in a recent “Saturday Night Live” musical comedy titled “Boomers Got the Vax.”
However, aging Americans are an incredibly diverse and vulnerable group: 28% lack retirement funds and another 17.3 percent have less than $10,000. Boomers will be as reliant on Social Security and Medicare as their parents were. And these privileges are almost probably going to be targeted when the inevitable catastrophic economic collapse occurs.
The lesson of pandemic politics is that the lives of older Americans may actually depend on their becoming a more politically conscious, active, and outspoken voting group.
Seniors must create and support political champions for elderly Americans, such as the late Florida Rep. Claude Pepper and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. And more members of the present Congress should consider taking on the challenge and honor of stepping into the shoes of those legends.