What having measles taught me about getting vaccinated for COVID-19

June 15, 2021

At sixty-two, I was among a small number of Ontarians offered an AstraZeneca shot in March. With the third wave looming, I watched older friends struggle to navigate the unfriendly booking process and front-line workers continue to risk their lives, unprotected. Meantime, word spread among my friends: You can just call a local pharmacy! You can just walk in!

And I did, but first I panicked.

Vaccine-hesitancy was not something I expected to feel. I had a bad case of measles as a child. Not the worst, but bad enough. I remember the fever and rash, the pain when both ear drums burst, the six weeks in a dark room. I had health problems for years afterwards. Perhaps measles was to blame. I’ll happily tell that story to anyone who thinks measles isn’t serious. But now, with another virus threatening the population, I was holding back from taking one of those appointments that so miraculously landed in my lap.

Granted, our shots arrived during the very week that countries around the world were pausing use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Would Canada be part of this domino effect? I scoured the news, exchanged articles with friends. The risk seemed tiny. But how could one country assure everyone – again and again and with ever-more certainty – that the vaccine was safe while others suspended it? What were they not telling us?

I felt so, so guilty during that week when I waited to book my shot. Even before GenZeneca took to social media with their triumphant selfies, the situation seemed painfully obvious. I was a member of a pampered generation dithering about taking the first step along the beautifully groomed path that – once again – had been set out for us.

But safety was never the issue. Nothing is 100% safe. The fact is, it felt too soon. The distribution order – however questionable – was to go by descending age. I knew some eighty-year-olds who still had no shot. So, what’s the problem if I got mine a little earlier? It was that the whole process seemed so random. Yet another sign that no one was driving the bus.

So? We’re in a pandemic! What did I expect?

The sixties. Or my white, urban, middle class version of the sixties. Medicare was taking its baby steps when I was a child. I had never known anything else, but I knew it was wondrous, and we were lucky to have it. Public health was entwined with school in one orderly package. It brought fairness, rationality. Just what you needed at a time when invisible enemies roamed the air, looking for tiny bodies to attack.

For some of what we used to call “childhood diseases,” we had shots, for others we had stories, designed to get us through them. Maybe they weren’t true, maybe they weren’t even stated outright, but they were there. The big benevolent state was one of them, and here was another: It’s “just” the measles.

Unspoken: It could be polio.

The year I was born was the last polio epidemic in Canada. Vaccines were ending decades of outbreaks which arrived every summer, killing some children, leaving others unable to breathe without assistance, and others facing a lifetime of surgeries and medical interventions. By some fluke I had been born after that. We didn’t talk about the fluke that got me born to white parents, but still there was that sense that whatever I suffered it was a matter of counting my blessings.

And here’s another one: Getting sick makes you stronger. We thought of childhood diseases as a sort of boot-camp for the immune system: a tough workout, but it would protect us for life. Now we know viruses weaken the body, but if feeling like a little champion got me through that long recovery period, I’m not complaining.

I got my AstraZeneca shot two weeks after the availability was announced. And I got really, really sick. Worst-migraine-ever-layered-on-top-of-a-norovirus sick. And those stories came back to me: It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t Covid. I had a nice clean porcelain receptacle to puke in, a warm bed to toss and turn in, and could absorb the missing days of pay. I was one of the lucky ones. And this time, I really would get stronger immunity for my pains.

Then, those over forty got access to the shot. We’re no strangers to risk, they tweeted. We’re no strangers to waiting in line, to waking up feeling like crap. Who could blame them if all this was tinged with a teensy bit of self-righteousness? They’d earned it.

But it all got me thinking about the differences that came with scientific advances, mid-century. Kids five years older than me had been forbidden from going swimming, from drinking in public fountains every summer lest they catch polio. Sometimes they did catch it. I and my classmates spent a requisite amount of time in our tormented little beds, staring, feverish at the ceiling or trying to resist scratching off our chicken pox. Then, a shot in the arm took those particular sufferings away. It was more than just economic conditions and drug preferences that separated us from Generation X, our very cells were different. They got the measles vaccine. We got the measles. And their attendant stories.

Fear not: I’m not about to turn this into a competition, although it might be fun. Take that, you lily-livered Gen-Xers! What’s a lifetime of student debt compared to MEASLES?

No! Not an ounce of privilege-denial in this boomer. I’m making an erudite intellectual point, can’t you tell?

Besides, there was more. There was the NACI report, which essentially said that people who were desperate for the vaccine – such as the front-line workers who should have been treated better long before this pandemic – should take the one which came with higher risk. And there was that term: “buyer’s remorse,” which cast us as consumers instead of as citizens with an obligation to protect each other. This seemed just one more example of the erosion of a system my generation had seen go from showpiece to sham.

My experience of measles was also one being looked after. By a doctor who visited every couple of days, by a system that had provided me with shots for polio, diphtheria and tetanus, and though I’m sure it put incredible strain on my working mum to have me at home for six weeks, there was a different culture around illness. I was sick. My job was to lie in a quiet room and get better.

Now, there’s another generation of children growing up in the shadow of a contagious disease. Their educations, social skills and mental health – we hear – are threatened. But what about the stories they’re hearing? That the best way to deal with differences of opinion is to entrench and yell louder? That it’s okay to perpetuate injustice, just don’t admit you’re doing it? Polio is a distant memory in Canada. So is measles, and we hope Covid will be, too. But long after we’re back to eating in restaurants and learning in schools and hugging our friends, the stories will still be there. Let’s make them good.

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