25 July 2021
A strange thing has set upon us. Suddenly, we’re all doctors. Better yet, we’re virologists. At least you’d think so listening to the conversations around you.
Small talk used to revolve around topics such as “How are the kids?” or “How’s work?” Ha! Those were the days. Little did we know how good we had it, having the luxury of discussing such mundane things as your offspring, work and the latest annoying construction site on the beltway and how your commute is stressing you out.
The pandemic and most recently the availability of vaccinations have inspired us to greater chit-chat heights. Considering the seriousness of COVID-19, you could say that casual talk has become, uh, dead serious.
Germany being Germany, there was a system in place in each state early on. Note that I didn’t say that there were vaccinations in place, just a system, consisting of huge halls that had been converted into vaccination centers. Where people at wooden benches and tables once hoisted beer steins, now cubicles with plexiglass walls have been erected, arrows pasted to floors, chairs lined up in rows in preparation for the floods of people coming to get the life-saving jab. Vaccination center administrators proudly led journalists through the echoing halls, brimming with anticipation of the onslaught.
But the people didn’t come.
That’s because the EU was weak-kneed in its negotiations and got bogged down trying to unite its unruly member states. The end result: It ordered vaccinations too late and they were unavailable for months. After feeling smug towards countries like the U.S. for their lackadaisical attitude towards the virus, Germans were suddenly dismayed at reports of how Americans were getting vaccinated assembly-line style while they themselves were forced to wait for the first batch to arrive.
This was in spite of the fact that the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine was invented here in Germany. German journalists fell over each other in the scramble to interview the scientist couple responsible for this vaccine. Look, we’re a high-tech country! Not just high tech, but high biotech. Just try to beat that.
Then came the pictures of Americans getting vaccinated at grocery stores, coffee shops and even at drive-through facilities. My American friend Alan told me how his octogenarian father back in California hopped in his car – to the extent that an 80-year-old can still hop – to get his drive-through vaccination.
When he pulled in and rolled down his window, the attendant inquired politely:
“How many, sir?”
“Well, I only need one!” he responded, thinking what a stupid question that was.
The attendant lifted up a bag.
“Are you sure you don’t want two?”
“Why would I want two vaccinations? There’s only one of me!”
“This is a food bank, sir, not a vaccination center. But as long as you’re here, why don’t you go ahead and take a couple of food bags?”
So he took them, tossed them on the passenger seat and drove off, unvaccinated, but with food for the road. At least he wouldn’t get hungry driving around looking for the actual vaccination center. It’s just as well, since it was apparently more difficult to find than he had anticipated.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, vaccines were finally beginning to arrive. Germans had dutifully registered in their state database as required, answering questions about their age, health (immunocompromised people are prioritized) and whether they are required to look after elderly relatives.
Suddenly, grandparents found themselves the beneficiaries of multiple caregivers. Previous contact with the outside world had been limited to lunch deliveries from the local Meals-on-Wheels, but grandma and grandpa now discovered that the entire family was keenly interested in their well-being, stopping by daily.
Except this was all happening on paper only.
It was easy enough to fudge the answer to the question asking whether you look after anyone elderly – check! The authorities were already overwhelmed with vaccination logistics so surely they would not be able to verify this. The result was an overnight explosion in the number of grandparents as people tried to move themselves closer to the top of the list. For many, it worked. Those who were sloppy in falsifying the questionnaire were caught and sent away.
In the town of Ebersberg near me, there was a vaccination free-for-all on May 15th to bypass the vaccination bureaucracy. A batch of 1,000 Astra Zeneca vaccines arrived and were administered to anyone who turned up on the given day and time. Other municipalities held similar vaccination campaigns.
When the authority to vaccinate was expanded to general practitioners, I leaped to my phone to make an appointment with my local doctor. Within three weeks I was the happy recipient of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, the jab of choice in Germany, as Astra Zeneca is rumored to cause side effects.
Once people had gained this modicum of control over getting vaccinated, they sprang into action.
My friend Anke called; she knew a gynecologist who was vaccinating. It was all the way across town, but a vaccine is worth a train ride, right?
A former colleague sent out a whatsapp alert. A friend of a friend knew a doctor with a single dose of Pfizer-Biontech that was going to expire within 24 hours. Did I know anyone who needed it?
Claudia, my Brazilian friend who acts more like a German (I guess that’s why she wound up here) had been vaccinated at work, but what about her husband? She appointed herself his vaccination agent, buckled down and systematically called all the local doctors. When she finally found one able to vaccinate, she then proceeded to try to sweet talk the lady on the phone into giving him the fast-working Pfizer-Biontech vaccine so they could take their vacation in August.
Eventually, the doctor’s assistant gave in, sighing with resignation. “Oh, all right, that’s one more Astra Zeneca vaccine that we have to find someone to take.”
The reports of a few scattered cases of brain clots among millions of people vaccinated with Astra Zeneca gave Germans such a scare that many have refused it. I asked Claudia what the situation was like in Brazil.
“There, everybody wants Astra Zeneca,” she said. “Because the alternative is the Sinovac vaccine from China.” It’s all a matter of perspective.
Suddenly, everybody here was offering a vaccination.
The vaccination center where I had registered back in the Stone Age now texted me (admittedly not a very Stone Age mode of communication) offering me a vaccination. My husband was contacted by three different doctors within three days with offers for vaccinations.
It was a replay of what had happened during earlier stages of the pandemic, first with masks and then with the self-tests.
Masks? Nobody had masks. When people first appeared in grocery stores, very timid at this stage, many kept their necks stiff to try to keep the scarf in place that was covering their mouth. I felt like I had won the lottery when I discovered hand-sewn cloth masks at the local shoe repair shop. They had clearly been jerry-rigged from extra fabric scraps, apparently from children’s pajamas, aprons and what must have been carnival costumes.
Just as I was getting into the mask swing – I had found a cool black one with a butterfly pattern made of rhinestones – they mandated the boring FFP2 masks. The huge collection of colorful cloth ones I had amassed became instantly obsolete. I stuffed them into a drawer. Maybe some other pandemic would come along that didn’t require such a high-quality mask. I liked that butterfly, damnit!
Then came the quick tests, required for entry into certain establishments. Hearing of this amazing invention, I raced to the pharmacy to order a box of 10 for €120. When I picked them up, the pharmacist carefully ticked my name off a long list of customers lest I buy more than my fair share.
Within just two weeks, the local drug store was stocking the tests, too, for less money. Within four weeks, the price had dropped by 50%.
So now, in keeping with this pandemic product frenzy, after months of waiting for a vaccination, or even lying or cheating to get one, the market is flooded with them, too. The testing center where my daughter had to wait hours in the rain just for a test is now festooned with a huge banner reading “Vaccination – No appointment required.” I was so surprised seeing this as I drove by that I almost caused an accident.
Best of all, normality is returning. After a year and a half of warily circling around people, trying to keep my distance, I can now not only get closer but even hug people! I booked a solid week of lunches to meet friends for the first time in 18 months.
Seeing them again, I find myself raising my arms in anticipation, then halting in mid-air to ask,
And then I fold them into a bear hug.
How wonderful to hold people again in my arms instead of peering at them on my screen. Technological advances won’t stop but there will never be a cyberhug.
We’ve come full circle. It started with doubting whether a vaccine for a virus could even be developed at all – let alone quickly. Then we had to wait for its arrival. Now all that’s missing is for the skeptics to get vaccinated but it will take a lot more than vaccination campaigns to get them on board.