- Many individuals are feeling guilty after getting the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of others.
- Being interrogated for vaccine eligibility, feeling undeserving of the vaccine, and experiencing survivor’s guilt are some of the factors that can contribute to vaccine guilt.
- It’s crucial to remember that getting the vaccine is in the best interest of society and helps everyone reach herd immunity.
Many people look forward to the day that they become eligible to get the much-coveted COVID-19 vaccine. However, once that day arrives not everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. Instead, some are overcome with what’s being called “vaccine guilt.”
“In both personal and professional settings, I’ve encountered people who have experienced meaningful feelings of vaccine guilt,” Jim C. Jackson, PsyD, director of behavioral health at the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, tells Get Meds Info. “As in so many situations and circumstances, this guilt can thwart people from making decisions that are in their best interest and, frankly, in the best interest of society.”
Although vaccine supply is increasing in the country, there are still not enough vaccines to go around for everyone. For those who are eligible to get the vaccine or who have already been vaccinated, the awareness of this scarcity puts them on shaky moral ground. Many feel uncomfortable with having been vaccinated ahead of others, fearing that they took it from someone who needed it more.
“It does seem to me that those that are younger—under the age of 65—tend to feel more guilt,” Rupali Limaye, PhD, MPH, director of behavioral and implementation science for the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland, tells Get Meds Info. However, there are plenty of other factors that may cause vaccine guilt.
Factors Contributing to Vaccine Guilt
It can be beneficial for a person to unpack their feelings of guilt to understand and address its cause. According to Jackson, just because a person thinks that guilt is an appropriate response to receiving the vaccine doesn’t make it so.
Feeling Undeserving of the Vaccine
People may feel guilty or unworthy of getting vaccinated because they want to ensure that those who they consider most at risk are protected first.
“There are people that I have spoken with that feel guilty about getting the vaccine [even though] they have a pre-existing health condition that puts them at higher risk for severe COVID-19,” Limaye says. “They just want to make sure that those that are older than they are, and might be having a harder time getting a vaccine appointment, are able to get the vaccine.”
Many individuals were able to get vaccinated because they were administered unused vaccines at the end of the day, such as those who were at a pharmacy at the right time or volunteers at a vaccination site, can also feel guilt even though the doses would have gone to waste otherwise.
“I was able to get my vaccine earlier than my age group would have allowed due to volunteering,” Amanda Govaert Konrath, democratic deputy for St. Joseph County Voter Registration in Indiana, tells Get Meds Info. “I was grateful to get vaccinated but also felt guilty for ‘jumping the line.’ It felt almost like cheating the system. I am only 41 and was vaccinated at the same time as those who were in the 65 and up age range.”
Those who are technologically adept with reliable internet connections and free time to look through social media may feel guilty for getting ahead of others just because they have the knowledge and resources to book a vaccine appointment. There are also instances where individuals feel bad for having access to the vaccine in the U.S. while their relatives in other countries can’t get vaccinated yet.
Overall, the lack of vaccine availability, accessibility, and equity on a national and global scale greatly contributes to vaccine guilt.
What This Means For You
It’s not unheard of to feel guilty after being vaccinated. If you feel vaccine guilt, it may help to remember that getting vaccinated is not solely for your own good but for the good of all society too. By getting vaccinated you’re helping everyone inch toward the goal of herd immunity.
Varying Eligibility and Priority Groups
“Another [reason] is likely the somewhat haphazard national roll-out related to vaccinations which creates the awareness that there are people at a higher risk, in worse shape, etc. than you are,” Jackson says. Knowing that other individuals, and some that you know personally, might receive the vaccine after you do simply because of the place you live in “may not feel ‘right’ and can naturally lead to feelings of guilt,” he adds.
A young person who qualifies due to the nature of their work may feel bad for getting vaccinated ahead of someone with a chronic condition who is still waiting for their chance in a different state. Because the vaccine rollout significantly differs from one state to another, crossing the state lines just to get a shot (or “vaccine tourism”) is becoming more common.
“I think the key is to understand that there are many risk factors that place people at higher risk of severe exposure and to recognize that not all exposures are the same,” Limaye says. “The reason that prioritization has been done is to ensure that those that are most at risk are protected before those that are less at risk. It is a continuum, and the good news is that at some point, all that are eligible to get the vaccine will be able to get the vaccine.”
Being Interrogated About Vaccine Eligibility
“As people communicate about getting the vaccine, many people ask them why they are eligible or how they were able to get an appointment,” Limaye says. Some vaccinated individuals find their eligibility being questioned for not looking like someone’s idea of a person who typically qualifies for the vaccine.
Because of this, one person’s vaccine envy can cause another one’s guilt. “In some cases, it highlights and accelerates the discomfort that many people are already likely to feel,” Jackson says. Probing into someone’s health history or asking for proof that they’re eligible forces them to reveal information that they might not be comfortable sharing.
It’s crucial to remember that people may have medical conditions, chronic illnesses, disabilities, and jobs that put them at risk. Asking people to defend themselves, justify their eligibility, and prove their worthiness of a life-saving vaccine doesn’t help and may only cause or exacerbate feelings of vaccine guilt.
Survivor’s guilt, or the feeling of guilt for surviving a dangerous situation when other people lost their lives, also plays a role in vaccine guilt.
“Both vaccine guilt and COVID-19 survivor’s guilt are grounded in concerns—even if they are distorted and misplaced—about what is right and fair,” Jackson says. People can feel unworthy or undeserving of the good fortune and benefits they’ve received, whether it is getting a vaccine over someone who needed it more or surviving when someone else didn’t.
The feeling is not limited to those who lost friends and family because anyone can feel guilty for outliving more than 500,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. Receiving the vaccine when so many people have died or may die from the virus can make a person feel guilty just for being protected.
How to Ease Feelings of Guilt
Deep concern for others, which may drive feelings of vaccine guilt, can be channeled into getting the vaccine and becoming part of the solution, Jackson says. He likens the situation to flight emergencies where a person has to put on their oxygen mask first before attending to others. You can feel guilty about getting vaccinated and still push through with the vaccination, which is exactly what you should do, he adds.
Jim C. Jackson, PsyD
As I’ve often noted, if you are eligible to get the vaccine, you should get it. Run, don’t walk,
As the government tries to build more confidence in the vaccine, deciding to get vaccinated at a later time might appear as vaccine refusal or hesitancy to those around you. It’s important to keep in mind that not getting the vaccine when you’re eligible doesn’t ensure that it will go to someone who you think is more deserving of it than you.
“As I’ve often noted, if you are eligible to get the vaccine, you should get it. Run, don’t walk, and get the vaccine,” Jackson says. “Get yours as soon as you can, whether you feel conflicted or not, and you will be equipping yourself and doing your part to optimally help others.”
According to Jackson, a far bigger potential source of guilt might be deciding to forego the vaccine and developing COVID-19, which could lead to more problems such as inadvertently endangering plenty of people.
“To feel less guilty, I remind myself that the doses I got help us achieve herd immunity. We need as many people as possible to be vaccinated in order to protect our vulnerable populations,” Govaert Konrath says. “To those who are also struggling I would say this–know that you are helping. You are part of ensuring our country can come back better and stronger from the pandemic. Let yourself feel the guilt but then put it aside and embrace the grateful feelings too.”
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.