Queue-jumping and vaccination envy: framing and reframing the current vaccination discourse on a European level

In cooperation with Joachim Peters

The media discourse around Covid-19 vaccination is currently dominated by two intertwined topics: On the one hand, there is not yet enough vaccine for all population groups and many people cannot wait until they are finally vaccinated. On the other hand, hesitant, if not downright negative, voices are being raised regarding Covid-19 vaccines. Of course, this discourse also influences language. We wondered what current neologisms related to the vaccination issue are shaping the current discourse in several European countries. First, we were interested in how the situation of shortage of available vaccine is linguistically coded and emotionally metaphorized.

Due to the vaccine shortage, several nations have each developed their own vaccination plan with a vaccination order, which determines who is vaccinated when and in which priority group. We wanted to investigate the question of how information about the vaccination plan and the vaccination order of priority is processed in the population and what feelings and thoughts are evoked by this. A look at the media discourse of several European languages shows strong similarities. We evaluated 7864 press texts related to the Corona crisis from 722 European press publications, which had been collected using a web crawl procedure since March 2020. The raw data were tagged with the metadata day, country of publication of the journal, and language. The data were then searched using a set of language-specific seeds starting from the German and English terms, to continue with the other languages. 

The vaccination priority order debate has only played a central role in the data since late December. In the media of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, the two terms “Queue jumpers” or “jumping the queue” (French: se bousculant la vaccination, German: Impfvordrängler,Swedish: gå före i vaccinationskön, etc.) and “vaccination envy” (German: Impfneid, Swedish: avund mot vaccination) circulate. It is hardly surprising that such strong parallels can be identified between individual European countries; after all, the availability of vaccine in the countries studied is still very limited at this point in time, and the vaccination priority groups are strictly defined. Accordingly, the public perception and interpretation of the vaccination schedule in these countries is the same – which is reflected in the language. So what conclusions can we draw from the two metaphors?

Queue jumpers: Here, a kind of “mental queue” exists in which the non-vaccinated have to wait. It is characteristical in these countries that people wait in a queue for reasons of social solidarity; solidarity is deeply anchored in their culture and forms the basis of living together. In these countries, acceptance of the vaccination schedule is particularly high, the strategic sense of the approach is not doubted, and the state is an absolutely reliable partner. A frequent thought pattern is: “It’s not my turn yet, but I’m in the queue and will be considered when it is. I won’t be forgotten, I’m in the queue after all.” People who illegally jump the queue, on the other hand, violate the state’s established order. The person who jumps the queue is socially unacceptable – in the supermarket and at the bus stop as well as in the “vaccination queue” . In the case of the coronavirus, the tailgater not only violates rules of politeness, but very concretely puts other people in danger. 

The phrase “vaccine envy” occurs less frequently and has somewhat less linguistic significance. It can refer to entire states as well as to individual persons. As a social phenomenon, vaccine envy was felt in Germany from the fall of 2020, when other countries were either faster to develop (Russia), approve (UK, USA) or deploy (Israel) a vaccine. Here, Germans as a large social group are “vaccine envious”; the envy ultimately concerns the question of the technical or organizational feasibility of population-wide vaccination. At the same time, however, vaccination envy may also exist between individual German states where doses are vaccinated at different rates. Lastly, however, vaccine envy also refers to a notion similar to that of vaccination enforcer. Individuals who are said to be vaccine envious are impatient and lack solidarity; they are resentful of those individuals who are already legitimately entitled to a vaccination. In this context, vaccine envy is also to be understood as a moral evaluation of those who doubt the current vaccination order or even strive to become vaccine queue jumpers.

The current situation is undoubtedly one of shortage: there is too little vaccine for too many people. As our discussion has shown, the linguistic treatment of this situation of shortage can take two forms.

The idea of jumping the queue for vaccinations undoubtedly has a combative character, and this is reinforced by the use of war metaphors. War metaphors here serve to emotionalize and highlight the fact that vaccines are a scarce resource. They should be viewed particularly critically in this context, as they create uncertainty and highlight the urgency of action. With their help, the current situation is clearly conceptualized as an extreme situation (and, indeed, a war situation). In this situation, queue jumpers are the traitors. Using war metaphors and talking about of queue jumpers can promote negative attitudes toward vaccination policy and fuel conflicts between different states or social groups – a state of affairs that should by no means be considered desirable. Rather, the opposite is currently desirable: a discourse that expresses the importance of remaining calm and working together through the crisis. Therefore, a reframing by using reassuring metaphors associated with positive emotions and comfort would be welcome, aimed at communicating facts in a neutral, factual and intellegible manner. With regard to vaccination, citizens should feel well taken care of: Everyone will get their turn at the appropriate time, even if there are currently waiting times. Rational reasons should be focused on – vaccine is now in short supply and individual groups of people are considered to be particularly at risk. Combative metaphors and metaphors of jumping the queue or queue-jumping, on the other hand, explicitly oppose this positive, fact-oriented view. 

It is surely only a matter of time before the issue of “vaccine shortage” will be displaced by the issue of “vaccination readiness in the population.” Nevertheless, while the current vaccine envy is not a virtue, it does show that vaccine is currently a coveted commodity.

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