From the May/June 2021 issue.
“This is like the Hunger Games!” some version of this exclamation, often peppered with curse words and red-faced anger emojis, was a common refrain in a now-defunct volunteer Slack group I spent a few hours in each week this spring, working alongside tech types trying to #disrupt a broken COVID-19 vaccine-distribution system. The group saw tens of thousands of people come through searching for their shots, monitoring the platform’s auto-updated appointment trackers, and seeking assistance from dozens of volunteer schedulers who navigated public and private systems to find vaccines for people with low computer literacy or unreliable internet access.
Of course, it shouldn’t be this hard to get a lifesaving vaccine. For anyone. But this pandemic year, combined with our Texas deep freeze in February, has laid bare an awful truth that many of us have never had to face in a real and present way: There are some services and resources—essential services and resources—that we’re generally OK with making hard or even impossible to get, depending on who is needing them. Many express surprise about the failures of “our” pandemic year, yet the crises haven’t hit all of us the same way. Our systems are not designed to distribute the burdens of death, destruction, and disenfranchisement equally, and for a lot of Texans, these frustrations aren’t new.
If you’ve ever tried to get an abortion in Texas or had to sign your family up for food stamps or Medicaid, you may be less surprised by how hard it has been to get a vaccine. You may be less inclined to wonder how state leaders could have designed a built-to-fail power grid, left people to freeze to death on the streets in single-digit weather, or forced service workers to choose between a paycheck and bringing the coronavirus home to their families.
It seems that Texans ought to have lost our capacity to be shocked and outraged by the way the people in charge, men mostly, have with every interminable day of this nightmare year become more and more outrageous parodies of themselves. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggests grandparents sacrifice themselves to COVID-19 (politician, avail thyself!). Senator Ted Cruz helps incite a white supremacist insurrection in Washington, D.C., then flies to Cancún during a deadly deep freeze in his home state and blames the asinine decision on his daughters. Governor Greg Abbott announces that he has bravely freed us from the grip of face-mask oppression at a Lubbock restaurant that … continues to require masks.
This clownery is comical only on the surface. The effects of the combined cruelty, callousness, and ineptitude are deadly, and disproportionately borne by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, whether we are talking about COVID-19, white supremacist violence, or the failure of Texas’ power grid and water supply. Meanwhile, as Cruz staged a post-Cancún trip photo shoot, loading a few crates of water in an empty parking lot, trying to prove he was a regular guy helping regular Texans, people have been stepping up all across the state. Mutual aid networks dispatching food and tents and water. Programmers who wrote code to get their own grandmas vaccines, scaling it up overnight to help everybody’s grandma. Volunteers at vaccine clinics handling reams of paperwork.
This is heartwarming as hell, but not at all sustainable.
Even “turning Texas blue” won’t stop us from being here again if we don’t face some hard truths. Indeed, vaccine appointment registries have been unpredictable and largely impenetrable in geographies both red and blue. I’m still mad about Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s international pandemic vacation. This is bigger than “both sides.”
This year has shown us that the way we care for one another, or for some and not others, isn’t about who we are as Democrats or Republicans but about what we believe as people. We have a fundamental, deep-in-the-deepest-heart-of-Texas problem, and it’s not new. It’s just clearer, now and to more of us, that our bootstrapping individualism is a sham, and a deadly one. Mutual and community aid are beautiful things, but we cannot survive and thrive relying on volunteer vaccine-searchers, bailing out water from neighbors’ swimming pools to flush our toilets, and starting GoFundMe’s for everything from cancer treatments to funerals for victims of white supremacist terrorism.
We have a chance now to take a hard look at ourselves, our systems, and our inequities, to create a future that doesn’t look like a dystopian young adult novel. We owe it to the more than half a million people in this country—and 50,000 Texans—who haven’t made it through this pandemic to try.
The Texas Observer