A modern-day witch-hunt is a deliriously loaded proposition, at once apocalyptic and archaic. But when 22-year-old Jess, a mental health and body positivity advocate from London, posted on Instagram after receiving her coronavirus vaccine to reassure her 14k young followers that she was doing fine, for all the microchip conspiracy theories and vilifying of Bill Gates that the zeitgeist could have vomited into her DMs, she didn’t expect what happened next.
Unfortunately, Jess is one of a number of young women being harassed online into justifying their COVID jabs.
"I suddenly had users questioning my eligibility and demanding answers," says Jess. "This made me angry. Being young doesn’t guarantee perfect health and while I’m happy to share my experience, I know others might not be."
Jess cares for a family member over 80. The pandemic has brought enough stress already – the last thing she needs is the Instagram equivalent of the FBI questioning her experience.
Watching this trial unfold on my Instagram feed, I was appalled. There is a long-held assumption (thanks, influencer culture) that because someone presents one aspect of their life online, their followers are at liberty to know everything about them. As much as I hoped what happened to Jess was an isolated incident, I had a feeling that other young women were facing similar backlash.
Twenty-two-year-old Estelle* has also been subjected to the vaccine witch-hunt: a follower popped up, intrusively probing her eligibility, after she shared a post-vaccine Instagram Story. "I didn’t realise people would respond in this way – maybe I was being naive," she tells me. "It took me a while to respond because I was taken aback. I explained I have asthma but, really, I wanted to make it clear the question made me uncomfortable. If you’ve been vaccinated, you’ve clearly been offered it for a reason."
Despite simply following the directions of the NHS, Jess and Estelle's statements show that they were made to feel they had done something wrong. Just as Estelle uses language which shifts accountability to herself – her suggestion that she was "naive" and felt she couldn’t speak up – these women’s personal milestones are obscured when they have to justify their jabs. The opportunity to start waving goodbye to COVID has turned instead into something painful.
Thirty-three-year-old Nay runs an Instagram account to raise awareness of her type 1 diabetes. "For me, it was a celebration," she says when I ask why she chose to post online after her vaccine. "I take thousands of injections every year and this is the first I’ve actually looked forward to." Nay says that before questioning another’s experience you should "honour them" because to make these women relive their trauma simply to justify themselves to you is to invalidate their lived experience.
We’re all living through this pandemic but everyone's experience is idiosyncratic and distinct. The problem with social media is that it packages us up into tidy Instagrammable stereotypes. While getting jabbed might seem trivial if you’re young and fortunately healthy, to others dealing with any number of issues, the vaccine is a life-saving light at the end of a pretty bleak year of shielding, misinformation and worry.
Being forced to justify your health problems to others is sadly all too familiar to me. My dear dad passed away in 2016 when I was 18, after a long battle with kidney disease. Growing up, disability permeated family life. I experienced intrusive comments and unwarranted stares whenever I was with my brave dad, who struggled to walk and was visibly disabled even to the most ignorant eye.
I always think back to the first time I witnessed ableism in play, at a family day out to a theme park. It was a far from carefree experience. Would the rides have accessible seating? If there are steps, are there ramps? How much walking is involved and where are the nearest benches for pit-stops? Nevertheless, Dad was determined that our special day was happening and joined me on a rollercoaster. With difficulty, he managed to lower himself onto the seat next to me. I was glowing with pride. The world is full-colour in this memory as we whizzed along the track.
That was until he struggled to find strength to hoist himself out at the end, and I caught the eye of a pre-teen sniggering maliciously in the queue. Just like that, Dad’s personal breakthrough, and my deep-seated pride, felt stolen.
This moment is one of many which have stained my outlook on society with distrust. It demonstrates why questioning someone's lived experience is never okay. Indeed, for the women I’ve spoken to, an internalised guilt at getting vaccinated before their peers existed long before anyone fired a loaded question their way.
Twenty-two-year-old Kate works in healthcare for Infection Prevention & Control. She also has inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) so is vulnerable. Doubly 'justified' to have been jabbed, you might think, but when I speak to Kate, guilt shadows her words. She’s held back from telling certain people her news because she’s concerned about their reactions.
"I think some of my guilt comes from how COVID has been marketed," Kate tells me. "When we say ‘vulnerable’, it draws up a very specific stereotype that excludes many of us."
Jess, Estelle and Nay all harbour similar guilt. The loaded questions Jess received made her feel that she had "stolen" something. Estelle was vaccinated before her parents and subsequent demands to explain herself led her to question her validity: "It almost didn’t seem right." Nay felt she had to go beyond the words "I am a diabetic" and explain that if she were to catch COVID, it could "cause diabetic ketoacidosis – a medical emergency – and I could die".
With 80% of disabled people living with hidden impairments, and still not enough public understanding, this witch-hunt makes those with so-called invisible illnesses feel that their experiences aren’t justifiable.
Rebecca, an NHS practice manager in a primary care network in the Midlands, clarifies what might seem obvious but is clearly cast aside when curiosity overcomes us: "Being young doesn’t mean risk is lower."
"The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has identified those in first need of the vaccine based on medical conditions, treatments, age and healthcare professions." This should be all the justification anyone needs.
Yet even this week the witch-hunt has taken another ugly turn as plus-size women speak about the trolling they've experienced for getting their vaccines, all completely in line with the government's pre-determined vaccine schedule. "This is the reason I've only told a handful of people in my life that I'm getting it," tweeted one plus-size woman in response to some of the ugly experiences being shared.
Kate struggles to see why others would need to know why she has received the vaccine. "My reaction is that people shouldn’t ask, unless someone has the same illness as you and they’re asking for advice on a shared experience." Estelle adds: "In an ideal situation, everyone would keep to themselves and not ask but I think if you really want to, the right etiquette would be to frame your question indirectly. By leading with an open statement like 'Only if you feel comfortable telling me…' it gives the person you’re asking the right to choose whether to respond."
Weeks have passed since Jess received the intrusive DMs. In light of the backlash, does she regret posting online? Not at all, she says generously. "I’m always open to talking about anything if it means helping someone."
The pandemic is a history-making event and not one life has been left untouched by its devastation. But I have to believe that for all it has shattered in the human psyche, we have a unique opportunity to learn important lessons about what it means to be a little more human. Respecting people's different, nuanced and diverse lived experiences is one of them. Take one look at Jess’ Instagram feed and it’s clear to see: empathy and kindness always prevail.
*Name has been changed to protect identity