We Are All Essential

Dec 27, 2020 | Health, Op-Ed

Asking, “Who is essential?” is the wrong question.

Declaring, “I’m not essential,” is the wrong answer.

We are all “essential” to someone, even if our work is not essential – today – to the continued functioning of our civilization. The question of who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first, and in what order thereafter, is a question for virologists, epidemiologists, and medical ethicists. The correct term is “essential worker” – not “essential person.” Essential workers are the people who take care of the rest of us – who allow us to not go out there and risk close exposure to a deadly pathogen. But if we are not “essential,” then what are they risking their health for?

Adjectives should no be carelessly applied, or turned into nouns – just as people and immigrants are not “illegals,” we do not have some class of humans called, “essentials.”

The media does no one any favors by asking, “Who is essential?” Given they seem determined to fill the airwaves with their blather, 24/7, they could spend an extra second on, “Who is classified as an ‘essential worker’?” or “Which jobs are considered ‘essential’ when determining how the vaccine will be distributed?”

The CDC does a decent job of outlining the plan: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations.html

Eager as I am to get vaccinated, I wouldn’t put me at the head of the line. Not because I’m “not essential” but because I’m not out there working in the medical field. I’m not a first responder who is likely to encounter people stricken with COVID-19. I’m not trucking food and toilet paper and PPE cross-country, every day. I’m retired, and I have no school-aged children living at home, but I’m not old enough to be in the high risk age groups. I’m overweight, but not “morbidly obese.” I’ve had cancer, but that’s in the past. My immune system is fine. I’m glad I’m still too young and too healthy, overall, to be in the first group slated to receive the vaccine. Patience has never been one of my virtues, but .impatience is hardly a risk factor for COVID-19.

I’d put my grown children and my grandchild ahead of me, too. Every parent knows that elementary and secondary school is a breeding ground for germs, and those germs get shared more liberally than unwanted carrot sticks from a sack lunch. They’re brought home more reliably than a math worksheet. University students can, for the most part, follow directions and protect themselves, but what kind of a life is it to hole up alone in your dorm room like a mole rat and experience college life via Zoom? I used to joke that having kids in public school was how we develop immunity to “nuisance” diseases, like the common cold. But I remember lining up at school for a slew of required vaccinations. It wasn’t a choice and our parents remembered the devastating effects of smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio too acutely not to consent to our receiving those shots. Fortunately, most people my age don’t have first-hand knowledge of any of those things, thanks to vaccines.

There are a lot of negative and untrue stories out there, concerning vaccines. I’m not going to argue with the anti-vaccination crowd, but participating in large-scale vaccination is one of the prices to be paid for living in civilization with other humans. There are many more lives saved because people took a chance and put their faith in science, rather than risk death by microorganism when there was an effective way to prevent it. I’m one of those people. I’ll get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’ll let me – to reduce your risks, as well as my own.

But even if I have to wait until March, it doesn’t mean I’m “not essential.” And neither are you. Don’t let the news media convince you otherwise.

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Pat Stoltey

    Holly, you’ve said exactly what I was thinking! I would only add a list of the media jerks who I would consider nonessential…and there are a lot of them.

    I’m in the over-75 crowd, so in some states I’d be getting the vaccine sometime in Phase 1. Colorado’s system seems a little different from the CDC recommendations so I might be in Phase 2 instead. I can deal with whatever they decide is best because I, like you, am not out there in the world providing the important services that I depend on to keep me safe.. Those folks who do my shopping and bring it to my car, place it in the trunk, and give wonderful, friendly service deserve gold stars (and an early vaccine), in my humble opinion.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Indeed they do, and they deserve to be first in line for protection against this virus. We’ll manage, eh, Pat?

      How have you spent your summer? I don’t see much after the cat tried to help you solve the puzzle and your husband played 2,407 Pick-up with all those sorted pieces. How’s your knee? How’s life?
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…We Are All EssentialMy Profile

      • Pat Stoltey

        I made the decision to not post to my blog or get a haircut until a vaccine was approved…I’m going to start up the blog again in the new year, but the haircut can wait until I actually get the vaccine myself. The puzzle is still unfinished. We’ll never tackle a 4800 piece monster again. The cat and dog are fine. My knee is stable and strong, but still very sensitive. At least I can take Sassy on walks again, even in the cold. The only thing that keeps us at home is ice and snow on the sidewalks or some of Colorado’s high winds that set off my allergies. I’ve read a lot, wrote a lot, managed to finish some old projects, and generally survived the last ten months without suffering much. Except for these stupid arthritic shoulders. So annoying to have arthritis when the rest of me is in pretty good shape (for an old broad). Not a very exciting update, but then I don’t lead a very exciting life. 😀

        • Holly Jahangiri

          At this point, “not very exciting” is probably for the best! Sounds productive and comfortable (despite a few squeaky, creaky joints – I can relate).

          4 of us happily did a 500-piece puzzle in about an hour and a half. I have a 750 and a 1000, and 4800 sounds like borderline insanity to me, but might be heavenly for my sister in law!

  2. Ming Qian

    Hey Holly, I haven’t thought much about the word “essential” until you brought it up. I think “essential” was more appropriate when it was widely used during a lockdown. Back then, we called them “essential workers” because they couldn’t stop going to work even as the rest of us stayed home.

    You’re right that it may not be the best word to use in today’s context though. After all, words do have power.
    Ming Qian recently posted…Sunshine Blogger Award: 11 Questions with MingMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      It’s really just that the media gets lazy; or worse, finds subtle ways to provoke controversy, division, and discontent. They don’t say, anymore, “Who is considered an ‘essential worker’?” but rather, “Who is essential?” This appeals to emotion, not logic. The first vaccines should be allocated not only to those at highest risk, but to those most likely to be asymptomatic carriers who will come in contact with large numbers of people, some of whom may be at moderate risk, like children. To dismiss the risk to the young is callous, though, too – and the health problems they may carry through life will have an impact on everyone, too.

      So the adjectives we use should be paired with the right nouns: essential + business, workers, services, supplies – but not people or humans. Words matter, and we ALL matter.

  3. Shilpa Gupte

    Just one wrong word can change the entire meaning of a conversation! Essential persons? And, such a blunder by the media?

    • Holly Jahangiri

      They just say “essential” now, and let people assume a noun.

  4. Shilpa Gupte

    I think the media needs a vaccine against the ‘Foot in the mouth’ disease, no? ;P

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I’d like to think that’s all it is – a blunder. But I’m fairly sure it’s by design. It would help if the media were more independent, less desperate for profit, and more objective.

  5. Mitchell Allen

    Holly, one of the benefits of not watching TV is that I get to miss all of the nonsense being spewed. Your essay makes perfect sense and, in a perfect world, wouldn’t have had to be written.

    I get my news by inference: reading your posts; updates from my family; the occasional “New Tab” rabbit hole fodder from my browser. LOL (I recently got rid of even that, as it was too depressing.)


    Mitchell Allen recently posted…The ContractMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I am cautiously optimistic going into the new year, but also realistic enough not to expect the damage done over the past 4 to miraculously heal and all of us to thrive. I am hoping for kindness, gentleness, and grace – space to make little mistakes and to grow, and a communal effort to stop making the BIG ones.

  6. Jyothi

    Well Said! But I hear, the vaccines haven’t been tested on kids and Pregnant women yet. I think after the frontline workers, these categories need it the most. But yes, how does one experiment with these categories!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Same way we did with vaccines for any deadly disease, Jyothi. I had enough faith in science to give my kids the live polio vaccine. Maybe not pregnant women – too many variables. I don’t know. That’s a risk they and their doctors should discuss, for sure. If I were pregnant, I’d pretend to be living in the Tudor era and go into confinement if I had that luxury.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Absolutely! That’s “medical ethics” working as it should. (Distribution and politics is a whole ‘nother matter.)

      I wrote this in response to those who were kind of feeling down, due to the wording. “I guess I’m not ‘essential’…” That’s a depressing notion, and while it isn’t at all what’s meant, it’s the same as “social distancing” vs “physical distancing.” Subtle, but important. Words do matter.


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