Should People Share Covid19 Vaccine Selfies on Social Media?
On your marks, roll up your sleeves, breathe a sigh of relief, and stare into the camera — for a photograph, to document a win against the Covid19 pandemic. As Gen Z and Millennials become the newly announced beneficiaries of the Covid shot in India, the ‘vaccine selfie’ — the picture taken during or immediately after immunization — is gathering steam on Twitter feeds and Instagram timelines.
“Log in to any social platform, and the picture — not to mention The Pose — is almost impossible to miss,” Jeanine D. Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in the U.S., tells New York Times. “The vaccine selfie has gone viral.” But like every other thing that goes out into the worldwide web, the response to this seemingly positive trend is fraught. Some see it as a sign of hope, others call these displays ignorant. It begs the question: is there — or should there be — a vaccine etiquette for social media?
For the vaccinated, the lure to share this milestone is understandable. It’s a look and moment worth celebrating — which explains the conversation around ‘vaccine outfits’ the world over — particularly for a generation that is accustomed to sharing fleeting thoughts, random details, or snapshots about their lives on digital walls. On an individual level, the desire to share the shot with your friends and family — dressed up or dressed down — is rational. Anirban K. Baishya, a professor in media studies at Fordham University, New York, likens vaccine photos to Polaroids for the digital age — “a way of documenting life as it is in a precise moment … a digital record marking a historical moment,” he tells Vogue.
But there’s something distinctly modern to them, as well, in their nod to the unspoken agreement about what goes on social media: isn’t it better to have people post about Covid vaccines, rather than share tone-deaf updates? Theirs also is a sliver of hope in watching people you know get the vaccine — the positive news helps when life seems at its worst.
Vaccine pictures also serve a social purpose. “A happy person after vaccination can allay some fear and is always helpful from a social science perspective,” Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi epidemiologist, tells NPR. “I believe that such videos, images, and social media nudges definitely helps many arrive at a decision.” Some hospitals even have ‘selfie booths’ set up to encourage photo-sharing (and vaccine acceptance) on social media, The Indian Express reported. The act of sharing the selfie has its benefits: it shores up public opinion, address public mistrust and hesitancy around getting the shot, and encourage others.
But the vaccine selfie comes with a pose and a message — the intent of which may not always match the interpretation. The cultural and social complexity around who gets a vaccine, and the access they have to resources, influences the way we think about vaccine photos. It boils down to: not everyone who wants to get the vaccine can get the vaccine.
“This is a totally new type of world to have a pandemic in,” Catherine Newman, the etiquette columnist at Real Simple, tells KHN, noting the complexities of a world where the ‘haves’ is armed with access to vaccine and safety than the ‘have-nots.’
For starters, India’s vaccine registration system for people between 18-44 years of age is designed in a way that benefits those with access to technology. Even for these digital natives, the struggle to get a slot resembles that of trying to win the lottery — people describe feverishly refreshing the Co-WIN portal to find slots. But arguably, this is a marker of privilege, too, which many without internet, mobile phones, or a stable connection to the internet may not have. Nearly 50% of India is not connected to the internet; even those with access are not necessarily comfortable using it for basic services like healthcare, Manavi Kapur writes in Quartz. According to the government’s Co-WIN dashboard, about 16 million people have registered online so far. People who are unfamiliar with internet tools and digital helplines only have the choice of waiting for walk-ins to open up.
And a vaccine selfie always prompts a rumor mill of foul play, as many have cut the line or used connections to get an appointment. Regardless of whether the rumors are true, against the backdrop of a severe vaccine shortage, when most people are struggling to get a slot, online revelry about getting the vaccine engenders a sense of resentment, outrage, and envy. Despite the intent behind the selfie, the post can hurt people.
In the initial phases, the politicians and celebrities who posted vaccine photos helped create public trust about vaccines. But it was also a time when the vaccination wasn’t open to everyone and the doses were administered free of cost. As private hospitals start making plans for at-home vaccinations, the ability to get the vaccine will be determined by access to the internet and private health care. The dismay of those who are outrightly struggling is thus understandable.
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It might help to probe the source of the trend to understand why it does or doesn’t work. The vaccine selfie — also colloquially known as the ‘vaxxie’ — shot to popularity in the West first, as younger people became eligible for the vaccine. The fuss about the ensemble — A simple shirt or a jazzy one? Low-key pants or dressy shorts? Earrings? (but they might not go with the mask!) — made sense in a pandemic world where hope and happiness are both in short supply. Interestingly, the larger practice of vaccine images goes back to the late 18th century. “As long as there have been vaccines — since literally the beginning of vaccines, there have been pictures of people getting vaccines. And it’s really because this is a kind of classic mode of health care communications,” Vanessa Friedman, a fashion writer, tells NPR.
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Sara Radin writes in Vogue, “for posting a vaccine shot. So pick an outfit, book an appointment — when you are eligible — turn the camera on yourself and get ready to capture this historical moment because you could be helping save lives.”
But the vaccine selfie trend has trouble translating in a country where concerns of vaccine inequity are on the rise, and the rate of vaccination is among the lowest in the world. “Someday, when the history of the pandemic is written,” Jeanine Guidry says, “it may be a narrative told partly in images: the despair of crowded hospitals and body bags, the fear and isolation of the masks. And then the balm of a smiling individual, one sleeve rolled up practically to the collarbone, with a medical worker poised to jab a needle into their upper arm. It may end up being one of the iconic images at the time.”
Etiquette expert Dianne Gottsman notes that it’s important for people to know their audience, when posting a vaccine selfie, so as not to come off as ignorant.
There are sensitive ways to go about it. Social media has its virtues in a pandemic world and can also be constructively used. Perhaps, an announcement of the vaccine shot can come in a textual format, along with more information about the process. The experiences of those getting the vaccine can be used as a sounding board to create awareness about the management and logistics at centers. What is the process like, the waiting time, what do you need to carry, what precautions can you take, and the susceptibility of overcrowding are all important questions which someone who has had the shot can broach and help initiate a conversation.
People can also direct the attention to others who are unable to get a vaccine appointment on their own because of registration difficulties. For those between 18-44 years, vaccination centers restrict walk-in admissions; but those without the technical know-how are forced to physically visit these sites for clarifications and questions. Those who share news of their vaccines on social media can encourage others to be kinder, patient, and helpful.
This is the first social media pandemic, so the etiquette guide for the vaccinated is one that will continue to evolve. “The difference between selfie and self-promotion is a moral judgment that exists in the mind of the person viewing the selfie,” Will Storr, author of the book Selfie, How the West Became Self Obsessed, told Deseret.
“We should take a step back, consider our intention before posting and make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons, whatever those reasons are,” Elizabeth Beecroft, a psychologist, tells Vogue. For the vaccinated, the ‘should you-should you not’ debate could perhaps start with some introspection.