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The coronavirus pandemic isn’t over, but on social media it might feel like it is. In the United States, the happy, smiling faces of recently vaccinated friends and family members offer a slice of hope, but the vaccine selfie can elicit a mix of reactions. It’s awkward to feel annoyed at a vaccinated loved one, but it also makes one wonder: Did you need to post that vaccine selfie?

The vaccine selfie could be a source for good, encouraging others to get vaxxed amidst the rapidly spreading QAnon-inspired anti-vaxx conspiracy theories; medical inequity of the vaccine rollout both nationally and around the world; and vaccine distrust within traumatized communities of color. Similar to the “I Voted” selfie during election times, there could be a positive, greater good that comes from the vaccine selfie and thus halts the spread of COVID-19.

There have been more than one billion doses administered in at least 209 countries worldwide. Despite this positive outlook, the global inequity is stark. In 38 countries, including Georgia, Iran, and Senegal, less than 1% of the population is fully vaccinated. India is in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis, where there have been over 28 million infections and 335,105 deaths; approximately 26 million have recovered and only 3.3% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Even in Germany, where a husband-and-wife team of Turkish-German scientists presented the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with a 90% effective rate, only around 22% of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated. In the US, approximately 42% of the population is fully vaccinated, which is on the high rates based on global stats. Among the highest rates are Israel, where nearly 60% of people are fully vaccinated, and Seychelles, the chain of islands off the east coast of Africa where 65% of people are vaccinated, though the region experienced a new wave of infections, possibly due to the use of less effective vaccines Sinopharm or AstraZeneca.

In the United States, clinics and distribution centers have set up vaccine selfie stations to increase vaccine confidence. According to a Pew survey released in March, 70% of Americans intend to get vaccinated.

In a survey released in February, researchers at the Imperial College in London found that global vaccine confidence was growing. In the UK, 70% of respondents said they would get vaccinated, but in France that number was only 30%, citing worries about side effects and even that the vaccine could be a government conspiracy.

A reported published by the RECOVER Social Sciences team in collaboration with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found that of seven European countries surveyed — France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine — only 36% of people strongly agreed that vaccines were safe.

Whether the vaccine helps with confidence or not, is the vaccine selfie necessary?

Pro-vaccine selfie

Visual activist and Bronx Museum curator Jasemine Wahi (@browngirlcurator), 35, posted her first of two vaccine selfies on February 26. In the selfie (reproduced below with permission), she stands on a street in New York, holding her vaccine card in her left hand, with a K95 mask covering her face.

Wahi has Type 1 diabetes and had been waiting anxiously for the vaccine while also feeling concerned about the medical inequalities that existed around who was “immune-compromised enough” to be eligible.

For her, posting the selfie felt important. “The benefits of sharing my experience outweigh the negative blowback, as being someone from a community of color that has a hesitancy to get the vaccine, period,” she said.

She wanted to put a face to the racial and economic disparities surrounding the vaccine, and also bring visibility to her “invisible disability,” busting people’s assumptions of what an immunocompromised or disabled person looks like.

Emily Lincoln’s vaccine selfie via Snapchat, using Mark Schoening’s lens (used with permission)

Dominic Quagliozzi, 38, of Los Angeles, enthusiastically posted a “jab selfie.” He has had a double lung transplant, and also lives with Cystic Fibrosis and diabetes. Initially he did not qualify early on based on California’s rollout plan. “I posted mostly because everyone I know had been asking when I was getting one,” he said.

Emily Lincoln (@rosebrick), 23, an educational equity specialist in Minneapolis, posted a vaccine selfie on her Instagram story using Boomerang. “I was like, it’s a little silly but I can get into it to get people to get vaccinated,” she said.

Later, she used the Snapchat vaxx lens, created by Minneapolis-based artist Mark Schoening, to further encourage people in her community to get vaccinated. He has three different lenses that people can choose from. A bouncing “jab” needle; an orange circular CDC sticker with a blue band-aid and green band-aid and text “I got my COVID-19 vaccine!”; and another sticker with just the scrolling word VACCINATED.

Considering the divide over the vaccine, Schoening’s gesture came from a place of pro-science. He hopes that if people on Snapchat see others posting the vaccine lens, they’ll be more likely to get vaccinated themselves.

Alicia Eler’s vaccine selfie via Snapchat, using Mark Schoening’s lens (image courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

“I see the vaccine as a way out of the pandemic,” he said. “I was inspired to make them after seeing local health departments put out similar pro-masking Snapchat campaigns.”

He released the lens in mid-January, and by April it hit 100,000 views, a reflection of the increasing availability of the vaccine and vaccination enthusiasm, on Snapchat at least. But according to Schoening, on May 21, Snapchat rejected his COVID vaccine lens, stating that it had “content that could be perceived as shocking, offensive, disturbing, threatening or otherwise upsetting to Snapchat users.” By that time, it had received 500,000 views. Schoening requested an explanation but has not yet received word from Snapchat.

Hyperallergic followed up on the takedown in early June. Snapchat relayed that the filter was reported by another user and mistakenly removed, but that the filter had now been actioned correctly and was available for use again.

No vaccine selfies, please

For every well-meaning vaccine selfie comes one that simply reads as “vaxhole” — someone who has been fully vaccinated and starts bragging about it by posting selfies and pics from their latest vacation spot. 

“There is an element of ‘bragging’ that can weave its way into social media, and I didn’t feel that an event — getting vaccinated — that I categorize as simply ‘the right thing to do,’ warranted posting or praise,” said Los Angeles-based actor and producer Che Landon, who decided not to post a vaccine selfie. “It’s a private matter and I’m happy to have done my part in preventing the further spread of coronavirus, but doing my part was enough for me.”

Brooklyn-based artist Kat Chamberlin, who is Armenian and grew up in Turkey, expressed her frustration with the selfies. “We need global vaccination rates to reach immunity levels in order to prevent new variants from proliferating,” Chamberlin wrote on Facebook in April. “When I do get vaccinated, I will not be sharing my vaccination card publicly simply because I know it is painful for others to see.”

In April, the Turkish government created a program that was intended to boost tourism. Anyone who worked in the tourist industry could get vaccinated. A video showing said vaccinated people, wearing yellow masks with “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated” printed across the front, was taken down after criticism that the government was treating its own people “like cattle for tourism.” When the video came out, the country was in the midst of its harshest full lockdown yet, effective three weeks and ending May 17 .

Turkey began phase two of the vaccine rollout in late March and early April, making the vaccine available to frontline essential workers, including those in the education sector. Currently, about 16% of Turkish citizens have been fully vaccinated.

Queer Olympix member and barista Elif Kaya of Istanbul uses the “Enjoy I’m vaccinated” filter during Turkey’s full lockdown (used with permission)

For Minneapolis-based, Florence-born artist and curator Zoe Cinel, the questions about sharing a vaccine selfie or not were up in the air. She didn’t share her vaccination card because of how slow the rollout is in Italy. Currently, about 22% of the country is vaccinated. In Toscana, where most of her friends and family live, vaccines are mostly available to people aged 60 and older.  

“Keeping it quiet felt like a form of respect and solidarity for the many people who are still jobless because of pandemic, who are in the hospital or who are seriously at risk to be impacted by exposure to COVID,” she said. “But I told my closest family members and friends that I got vaccinated.”

San Francisco-based community organizer and researcher Emi Kane has been helping book vaccine appointments mostly for undocumented immigrants who have either gotten COVID-19 or lost a close family member to the virus. She also saw many friends who were chronically ill or disabled that couldn’t get a vaccine appointment.

“A jubilant vaccine selfie felt like it could be salt in the wound for others in my circles, so I chose not to take or share one online,” she said.

But that moment of relief following the shot didn’t escape her. “I allowed myself to indulge in a moment of relief after getting the vaccine. We need those little moments to help us get through.”

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...