Toronto resident Jolie Featherstone can’t recall the first vaccine selfie she saw posted because they’ve been blowing up her timeline for weeks now. “It’s all through social media,” Featherstone says of being inundated with images on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook of American friends — or just people on the news and internet — having their arms poked or waiting in line to get their dose. “It’s bittersweet because you’re happy and you get a celebratory feeling that people are relieved, protected, and excited, but you’re also feeling envious,” she says. “There's that thought of, when's it going to be my turn?”
Canadians everywhere are feeling this vaccine FOMO. After initially feeling like the country was somewhat on top of the pandemic — with lower infection rates per capita than the U.S. and more rules around social-distancing and mask-wearing — we were hit with a devastating third wave and an abysmal vaccine roll-out. Across the country, many provinces are still vaccinating only people over the age of 40 and COVID rates are at all-time highs, while friends and family in other Western countries continue to receive their first and second doses and the increased likelihood of a normal (or more normal) summer. All this to say it’s understandable to be frustrated and annoyed when you see a fully vaccinated co-worker in the states proudly beaming on your timeline — even if you do feel like a little bit of a jerk for feeling that way.
It’s understandable to be frustrated and annoyed when you see a fully vaccinated co-worker in the states proudly beaming on the timeline — even if you do feel like a little bit of a jerk for feeling that way.
“Envy is a very natural feeling that one has in response to social comparison where they feel another person has something that benefits them,” says Dr. Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic, about unwanted feelings around vaccine distribution.
Social media tends to enhance those negative feelings. Anyone on any sort of app knows the phenomenon of “the highlight reel.” Depending on who you follow, these apps — especially ones like Instagram — allow people to present curated snippets of their lives, making their followers feel like their existence is hyper-perfect and incredibly unattainable. Curated beach vacations and brunch pics have given way to masked selfies at the pharmacy or other vaccination sites, but the feelings they evoke remain the same. “It depends on the person and what they value — there's some people who don't want to get the vaccine, and there's some people who don't want to go on vacation, so they’re fine,” Ahmad says of the comparison. For people who do want the vaccine, seeing images of people doing the very thing you desperately want can be super envy-inducing, even if you’re currently in a place of privilege compared to others around you.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we’ve been in the pandemic — an isolating, anxiety-inducing and stagnant limbo space — for so long, and it feels like it’s not necessarily getting any better. “We've given up a lot, we've had to put a lot on hold in our lives, and to be in a place a year later seeing our province with infection numbers going the exact opposite way we want to see, that certainly plays into it,” Featherstone says. While those emotions can sometimes be positive because they motivate people to make a change that benefits them, “when you can't do something about the situation, it can lead to frustration,” Ahmad says. And, as we’re sure many people can attest to, a feeling of helplessness.
Being low on the vaccine priority list, of course, probably means you’re in a relatively privileged position — maybe you’re able to work from home, or don’t have a pre-existing condition or compromised immune system that puts you at high risk. Unlike essential workers and lower-income communities, you may not fear for your safety on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean you’re not envious, and with that knowledge comes a healthy side of guilt. “It’s a lot of mixed emotions,” agrees Veronica Chung, a Toronto-based marketer whose family and friends in Texas have been vaccinated. “Part of it is guilt, because I know the reason that I'm in the last category to get vaccinated is because it's least likely to affect me, and so I feel like I shouldn't have those feelings of jealousy because I’m the least likely to get severely ill and be unable to work from home.”
Remember, feeling these things doesn’t make you a bad person, Ahmad says. “Often, most people are comfortable with emotions such as happiness, feeling optimistic, and excitement. But emotions such as anger, jealousy, and frustration make people uncomfortable,” she says. “Because of that, some people try to ignore their feelings.” What’s ultimately important is how we use and act on those feelings. Though it’s difficult to proactively plan because so much pandemic-related activity is out of our hands, Ahmad says that these emotions can be channelled into, for example, advocating to the government to be more transparent when it comes to vaccine roll-out, or petitioning for paid sick leave for essential workers.
But mostly, just be real with yourself and how you’re feeling. “A lot of times clients will say, ‘If I ignore these emotions, it’ll go away,'" says Ahmad. "It doesn't go away. It comes out in other way, like in your behaviour towards other people, how you respond, how you react. It doesn't help. And that's why we say verbalize it, acknowledge it, accept it. It's totally okay to be jealous. It’s very natural; it's temporary — everyone's going to get the vaccine — it's just a matter of time.”
Featherstone and her friends have a group chat to talk about the vaccine rollout in their province, and freely vent their frustrations and concerns without fear of being judged. Ahmad also says this practice of putting these feelings into words can take on other forms, like journaling. “The acknowledgement that, you're right, it is very unfortunate that you have to wait and you're going to continue to be at more risk than somebody else who has the vaccine, can lead to more acceptance.” If the feelings are overwhelming, try to unplug. Step away from your phone, computer and COVID-related news from time to time and take care of yourself.
It’s also important to remember that — in the infamous words of High School Musical — we’re all in this together. “We’ve certainly seen that if one person feels better then it helps everyone in the community. And if one person is ill it has an impact on everyone as well,” says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Featherstone, meanwhile, has taken to doing an emotional check-in and perspective keeping exercise anytime she feels a pang of jealousy. “I take a second to remind myself that my turn will come, and that we’re fortunate that there’s even a safe and effective vaccine at all.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.