When vaccine appointments opened up in my state, I knew exactly what to do. After all, I’ve spent the past year hunting down things like Sanrio Animal Crossing cards and Pikachu-themed Happy Meals.
The fact these two experiences can be compared at all is bewildering, but it’s true. The skills I learned during my online endeavors helped me maximize my odds of getting a vaccine appointment. First, I compiled a long list of links connecting me to places distributing the vaccines. I turned on notifications for a Twitter account and joined a Facebook group that buzzed me every time new appointment spots opened up. And, to top it all off, I made sure my PC was wired, so I had the fastest internet speed possible. Some of these things might have never occurred to me without my hobbies, where subcultures have developed intricate strategies to secure things that sell out in the blink of an eye.
It’s a similarity that has been noted again and again by my peers and friends on social media.
“Why are getting a PlayStation 5 and signing up for the vaccine the same difficulty level,” one post on Twitter jokes.
Twitch streamer Davie Young told Polygon over Twitter direct messages that getting the PS5 and the vaccine “felt like both a game and an existential crisis.” He spent hours refreshing a page just to do the reCAPTCHA puzzles over and over again to secure the first dose.
“For the PS5, the frustration was just how long it took. I would be at the ready at the exact moment the supplies would drop, but within 20 seconds everything would be sold out,” he told Polygon.
When getting the vaccine appointment, he said he was filled with dread and thought to himself, “I can’t believe this is how the process works. It’s as if I’m trying to get an exclusive pair of sneakers, but I’m actually trying to save my life and my family’s life.”
According to varying studies, somewhere between 24 and 163 million Americans lack sufficient broadband access. Health experts estimate that as much as 90% of the population will need to acquire resistance to COVID-19 in order to reach herd immunity, which translates to roughly 297 million Americans. But beyond having broadband access, some people lack the time and tech literacy to undertake this convoluted process. There’s a rift in who can and can’t get a vaccine.
Take for example, the gap in vaccination rates between white people and communities of color, who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Black and Latino communities are three times more likely to become infected and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus, when compared to white people.
A recent report from the New York Times shared that the vaccination rate for Black populations in the United States is half that of white people, and the gap for Latino people is even larger. Within these groups, local community leaders cite a lack of access to emails and computers as a barrier to getting vaccinated for the elderly, who are the highest risk population.
It’s not just about having time and access — you also have to know how to deal with technical issues. At one point during my quest for the vaccine, it seemed like all the newly-opened spots were booked up instantly, within seconds. But I recalled that sometimes, when many people are trying to load the same thing, the system can load incorrectly. At least, that’s what I experienced while trying to buy Sanrio cards at Target last weekend, when refreshing the page helped me secure my bounty. I tried double-checking the vaccine website and lo and behold, after loading a few times, the spots magically appeared.
I got an appointment in the end, but the fact it took so many plans and failsafes speaks volumes about the system itself.