Vaccinated in London: I feel guilty that people I love in Ireland haven’t been inoculated

I fear the most beloved of Irish traits, begrudgery, will rear its head in my direction

Mary-Jane Boland after getting vaccinated. Photograph: Mary-Jane Boland

Mary-Jane Boland after getting vaccinated. Photograph: Mary-Jane Boland

 

Last week I was invited by my local GP’s surgery, in east London, to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Getting that text message was like holding a Wonka bar in my hand, ripping off the wrapper and finding a golden ticket beneath. Here was a lottery I had finally won.

I carried this elation with me as, 48 hours later, I skipped down the road to the vaccination centre – a cathedral of relief and cheerfulness, where orange-jumpered volunteers greeted and guided me through as if I were a junior infant on the first day of school. Londoners were actually talking to each other in the waiting room, a sort of collective camaraderie I hadn’t felt since the last time I stood outside a Dublin chipper at 3am.

Aside from the shared joy of simply leaving the house, we were brought together by a shared sense of marvel at the logistical operation happening before our eyes, most of which was being carried out voluntarily. The GP who administered my jab told me he was using his annual leave to take part. I tried (poorly) to maintain my composure and not burst into tears of admiration.

Part of my vaccination experience was having to stare in the face of my own chronic illness . . . I have to acknowledge the sad reality of my own fragile health

And just like that, a short pin prick later, it was all over. As quickly as I had been ushered in, I was led out again, off on my inoculated way. A small miracle of science performed at the edge of a busy intersection in Hackney.

But, as I’d imagine is the case with many lottery winners, my initial jubilation slowly dissolved into something else. I am 36. There is something very unsettling in knowing I have been “made safe” before my mother, before many of my relatives, before the closest of family friends, or indeed before many strangers who are much sicker than I am.

Which brings me to the other slightly complicated dimension of winning this particular golden ticket. I am in category 6 according to the NHS, which means it has deemed me clinically vulnerable enough to get the vaccine before others. In spite of this government-declared fact, an autoimmune disease like the one I have is hard to pin down, hard to describe and hard to diagnose, and as a result it can be easy to feel like something of an imposter. I felt as if I had hoodwinked my way into getting the vaccine.

Mary Jane Boland with her daughter at the airport on their way back home to Ireland.
Mary Jane Boland with her daughter at the airport on their way back home to Ireland.

As a result, part of my vaccination experience was having to stare in the face of my own chronic illness. To date I have tended to handle it with a balanced measure of frustration, disdain and denial. Now I have to acknowledge the sad reality of my own fragile health. It has made the joy of being vaccinated bitter-sweet. And, to add insult to injury, on the very morning of the vaccine appointment, results arrived through the letter box that confirmed, conclusively, that my body is consistently attacking itself. This means I am not an imposter. The only person I am hoodwinking is myself. Timing is a funny thing.

My guess is that I am not alone in these feelings. The onslaught of coronavirus has made us all hyperaware of our wellbeing and our being well, of our living habits, of our ailments and of our proximity to life’s end. Ironically, it has taken the “cure” for me to confront the thorny relationship I have with my own health. I doubt I will be the only one.

I still feel guilty that people I love, especially those older ones at home in Ireland, await their inoculation while I flit around wearing an 'I’ve had my Covid vaccination' badge

When I think back to the buoyant waiting room at the vaccination centre, the morbid old woman within me finds it hard not to think that many of those smiling young faces were there because they are sick. Some of them, like me, might have an illness that they will live with for decades, if they are lucky. Perhaps that sense of liberated happiness we shared was imbued with something deeper than I first realised. Here at least is one disease from which we are now protected.

I still feel guilty that people I love, especially those older ones at home in Ireland, await their inoculation while I flit around wearing an “I’ve had my Covid vaccination” badge like some sort of honorary degree. And I still feel afraid of the possibility that the most-beloved of Irish traits, begrudgery, will rear its head in my direction. But when I spoke to my Irish friends about these apprehensions, they quickly shooed them away. “We are all in this together,” one of the girls said. I hope we can all remember she’s right.