Yeah, That’s Right, I’m “Vaccine Virtue Signaling”

Color photo of a vaccination event in a gymnasium, St. Louis.
Vaccination event in St. Louis, March 2021.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time observing people arriving to get vaccinated for the coronavirus. I volunteered, in a non-clinical role, to help out at a local large-scale effort where the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine was being administered at a recreation center in a park in a suburban area of St. Louis county.

I hesitated in writing this because I didn’t want to be seen as “virtue signaling” or humblebragging or whatever the put-down term might be. I had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and had been impressed by all the people at work-the clinical people and other volunteers — and I wanted to help in that effort. I had also been writing about the pandemic response for nearly a year and, beyond wanting to pitch in, I was curious to see for myself how well the operation was run and what kinds of people were coming out to get vaccinated.

For whatever reason, the folks running the event assigned me to be the first greeter. (I had a hat, it was sunny. Perhaps they thought I was sufficiently sunny, too, or just wanted me out of the building.) My job was simple, to greet people heading toward the building, ask if they had appointments, and offer assistance for those with special needs.

I texted my wife that they made me the greeter. “Perfect for you,” she wrote back.

As the afternoon progressed, I found myself heartened by interacting with people coming for their vaccine, people of every race and seemingly of every income level, including many whose outfits advertised their work — drivers and construction workers and plumbers and realtors and businesspeople (after a year, it was almost shocking to see people wearing suits).

I was heartened as well by the presence of members of the National Guard and the good-humored way they went about keeping the process orderly. (One guard walking by, overhearing a young woman telling me she was skittish about getting the vaccine, nodded at me and remarked, “Scaring people away, are we?” It was a timely quip that made her smile. She continued into the building.)

The clinical staff were happy we were there. The National Guard were happy we were there. The patients were happy we were there. And me? I was happy they were all there — each person getting us that much closer to herd immunity. Nearly every person I greeted, greeted me back. Some, when I welcomed them and said something to the effect that the day had come at last, were nearly weepy with relief.

The meaning of the term virtue signaling is a bit squishy; it apparently can mean that one is all talk and no action, but, as linguist Karen Stollznow wrote last fall in an interesting article on the topic, it has even been used by some to describe people who wear masks during a pandemic, as recommended by health experts:

The abundance and popularity of similar terms in the social lexicon, like “radical chic,” “bleeding hearts,” “politically correct,” “poseurs” or just plain “posers,” suggests many value honesty and integrity. We’re wary of fakes and possible bullshit.

However, like these labels, “virtue signaling” is highly pejorative: often wielded as a sneering insult by those on the right against progressives to dismiss their statements as grandstanding. Some people accused of it may actually believe deeply in the cause they speak of, and back their words with actions.

So, go ahead: call me for vaccine “virtue signaling,” if you will. I’ll take that label. I wear my mask during this ongoing pandemic. (On the Fourth of July last year, I posted on social media a shot of me wearing three masks — red, white, and blue. What I was hoping was that I was setting an example for some friends and colleagues — and being appropriately patriotic on the day.)

We must remember that the United States should have done much better in responding to the pandemic. Projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that by August 1 there will be 4.7 million deaths globally and more than 618,000 deaths in the United States.

Take that in for a moment: under the misrule of Donald Trump and his gang of cultists in Congress — who bungled and miscommunicated and pretended to be health experts and actively and, as we recently learned, obfuscated about the threat of the coronavirus and, most tragically, made not wearing a mask a sign of loyalty to Trump — the United States, with only about 4% of the global population, has nearly 13% of the total deaths. That percentage may now be dropping with the vast supply of vaccines in the United States, but some experts say we could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by early on executing a coherent federal plan.

In any case, I’d rather more people were virtue signaling than the ceaseless “lack-of-virtues signaling” Donald Trump welcomed, full-throatedly and by example — the paying off of porn actresses and Playboy models and the active collaborating with Russian operatives and the signaling of support to white supremacists — that we see much of today from Trumpists and their media friends, like Tucker Carlson.

I am fully vaccinated, but I’ll continue to wear a mask around others until I know we are safe not to do so. The variants of the virus are still of great concern. And the rate of infections in states like Michigan are going off the chart again. We may all be “COVID-fatigued,” but this is not over.

In any case, for some hours on a Tuesday afternoon in April, I allowed myself to feel like I lived again in a reasonably cohesive America.

Hopefully, I’ve only begun to tell you how good that feels.

Originally published at



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Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen

Half a lifetime ago, Kirk Swearingen graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. His work has most recently appeared in Salon.