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Heroism and COVID-19: Examining the Idea of “Deservedness” in Vaccine Distribution

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Amanda Clark, Ashley E. Nickels and Hannah Lebovits
February 21, 2021

For our 2020 column on social equity and local governance, we examined several topics: the provision of public education services, the challenges of elections administration, the importance of critical theory in examining local issues, and the need to increase deep engagement across a broader range of local stakeholders. This year, we would like to take a closer look at the concept of deservedness as it pertains to local governance and beneficiaries of public programs. We will focus on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and take the opportunity to examine local impacts in Texas, Ohio and Florida (the current geographic locations of your three authors). This quarter, we will look at Florida.

As COVID-19 swept across the country in 2020, stories abounded about the “everyday heroes” of the pandemic. Obvious categories of people, like front line medical personnel, were very much recognized and celebrated. However, people in other industries were also lauded for their importance to keeping the country moving in an unprecedented time. Grocery store workers, delivery drivers, distribution warehouse employees, food industry workers and others were all labeled as deserving of recognition and praise. Bill Gates wrote about several in his personal blog. Yet, as the COVID-19 vaccines have rolled off the production line (albeit with distribution issues and a lack of a real federal plan), have all groups of heroes received the same appreciation in terms of receiving the actual vaccine?

Since Schneider and Ingram’s 1993 piece about how target populations are seen in positive or negative light based on complex social constructions of deservedness, public policy scholars have seen these framing effects play out across a host of policy arenas: the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine roll-out are not immune to these forces. Many groups at the front of the vaccine queue are quite understandable: frontline healthcare workers, nursing home patients, those over 65 and members of the United States government. Yet, there are many who are very deliberately being left out.

In Florida, farm worker communities are being ravaged by the virus. While many categories of workers are deemed essential, in that they have to come to work, they are not essential when it comes to being vaccinated against COVID-19. Florida’s governor went so far as to blame farm workers (who were forced to work with little to no healthcare) for spreading the virus.

Even in “deserving” categories, like those above 65 years of age in Florida, there are limitations created by the way in which the vaccine appointments are being filled. In Palm Beach County, the only way to get an appointment is to email the county health authority. As we saw when schools had to go online abruptly at the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 only exacerbated well-known issues of access to resources. The use of online appointment systems or email automatically privileges those with easy access to technology and high speed Internet access. In addition, those that are emailing are often emailing multiple times which creates confusion and chaos. Across the state, lines of senior citizens awaiting an appointment, often camping out overnight, spoke to the haphazardness of the vaccine rollout plan.

Studies have shown that communities of color are being vaccinated at an alarmingly low rate compared to local areas with more white residents. Communities of color lack access to quality healthcare and nutritious food at the same time that these communities are more likely to be exposed to and die from the coronavirus. Poor communication, historical lack of trust and “drop everything” scheduling slots are biased against people who lack transportation and time off work or are home-bound due to previous health or age related issues.

Several other groups deemed essential and being pressured to return to work (some never had the option to go remote) include teachers, grocery store workers and warehouse employees. Theories of deservedness and the framing of who is “essential” are critical to understanding how groups who were asked to put their bodies–their lives–on the line to keep the economy going are now not receiving a just reward for that sacrifice.


Amanda D. Clark, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of political science at Nova Southeastern University. She is currently working for the Supervisor of Elections office in Palm Beach County, Florida and researching social movements, community development, and the U.S. policy process. @adclark_phd

Ashley E. Nickels, Ph.D., is associate professor at Kent State University and co-PI of the Growing Democracy Project. Her work focuses on urban politics, local governance, and community using a social equity lens. @AENickelsPhD

Hannah Lebovits, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at University of Texas-Arlington. She studies the relationship between governance, spatial structures and social equity. @HannahLebovits

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