The first public COVID-19 vaccination was an opportunity to snap a meaningful photograph to commemorate a historical moment that could influence vaccine skepticism. On December 8th, The New York Times published a picture of a man getting the second public vaccination worldwide whom they identified as William Shakespeare, 81, with a joke cribbed from Twitter; “if the first Briton to get the shot was Patient 1A, would Shakespeare be 2B or not 2B?”
Our collective Hamlet moment is, apparently, here. However, as a student of Public Texts, I’m reading the photograph’s purely visual figurative meaning. Foremost, I notice Shakespeare’s jabber—the nurse, May Parsons’ gendered, servile nature. The uniform, and more specifically, the apron, gives me an impression of hotel housekeeping.
Understanding historical vaccine photos can be tricky. In the Smithsonian’s online Polio exhibit, the Institute reminds visitors that the photographer edits every picture. There is a purpose to each photograph that decides what to show and how. Camera angle, framing, and composition all determine the result. As time passes, they say it becomes difficult to know the photographer’s intent and how people of another era would have understood an image. What insight would I gain by looking at this photo as if from a hundred years in the future?
Staging vaccination photographs has a long history as a strategy to sway public opinion. In the 1950s, a misconception about the term ‘infantile paralysis’ to describe polio “lead many people to believe that only young children needed to be vaccinated,” says historian Dr. Stephen Mawdsley of the University of Cambridge. In addition to costs and fear of the needle, teens stayed away from vaccinations. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis came up with new strategies to reach a younger demographic. For this cause, Elvis Presley offered his arm for a staged photograph.
Dr. Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine developer, was himself “the face” of the vaccine. The foundation behind the fund-raising campaign that raised millions for the vaccine research took publicity photographs and conducted interviews with Dr. Salk and his entire family. Photos circulated. Today, it’s unlikely that vaccine developers Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci behind BioNTech will be household names for vaccine BNT162b2. Yet, the husband and wife team deserves to be on the cover of every magazine at local checkout aisles right now. Being of Turkish descent, the two scientists could sway the anti-migrant sentiment in Germany. This could be “a welcome opportunity to celebrate the benefits of immigration, to recognize how migrants enrich and deepen our society,” writes Anna Sauerbrey for The New York Times. We may have missed the opportunity to take a better picture.
In contrast to Salk, this week’s photograph gives a different message to the world. Curious about the nurse May Parsons, I find out that she’s from the Philippines like myself, and suddenly, a whole new world of understanding opens up. I have always been sensitive to Filipinos’ proliferation in the hospitality and service industry because of my background. This leads to a fascinating discovery.
Catherine Ceniza Choy, the author of the 2003 book, Empire of Care, says, as early 1900s, “the U.S. set up nursing schools in the Philippines that taught an American curriculum to ‘civilize’ the Philippines.” To “help spread American democracy,” the Exchange Visitor Program allowed foreign professionals to work in the U.S. When there was a shortage of nurses after World War II, hospitals started advertising specifically for Filipinos already trained in “American-style nursing.”
Choy says the Philippines continues to be the leading exporter of professional nurses to the U.S. According to data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, nearly 72,000 Filipino nurses were newly employed or rehired abroad between 2004 and 2010. There are a growing number of Filipino nurses in the U.K. as well, which prompted the formation of a non-profit organization called the PNA-UK. Between April and September 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority estimates 2.3 million Filipinos were abroad. University Professor Robyn Magalit Rodriguez calls the Philippines one of the largest labour diasporas in the world. He calls it a “global care chain framework.” He notes that “the labour of care is far more complex than other kinds of [import/export] commodities.” The current system reinforces the power relations between the indentured migrant and their “citizen-employers.” In a bizarre twist, CNN reports, “Nearly a third of the nurses who’ve died of coronavirus in the U.S. is Filipino.” Nationally, over 30% of the 205 nurses who have died are Filipino American, says a report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
May Parsons, the first to publicly push the plunger against the global health emergency, immigrated to the U.K. over twenty years ago. She is now officially a “matron”—the “Head Nurse.” The National Health Service (NHS) uses terms that are still heavily gendered despite the presence of men in nursing. It would be confusing to expect a female nurse “matron” or “sister” (vice-chief nurse) only to have a male version walk in. The uniform guide below delineates the roles through attire.
The meaning of Ms. Parsons’ uniform outside of the U.K. is lost. Mr. Shakespeare’s bright red socks also happen to be a matter of function; the colour indicates the level of care a patient needs. Different hospitals have different sock codes. Red could show the utmost frailty.
In an interview, Ms. Parsons admits to being told a week ahead of time that she would be the one to administer the historic doses. Ms. Parsons had time to prepare beyond the ordinary “documentary” photograph. Attention to costume and appearance inevitably occurs, knowing that the world will be watching.
The public reaction to the event reveals an uncertain and divided world. “A PR stunt nothing more,” says one comment, “Propaganda to full please,” says another. “I’d forgotten how childishly obvious the mainstream TV is in its agenda,” another one says. The debate rages on as a seemingly endless metatext to this documented moment. For many, the vaccine represents the suspicious marriage of Big Pharma and the Government. There could be a wave of celebrity endorsements to come despite research that finds Britons not receptive. I anticipate the coming publicity photographs eagerly as the vaccine gets distributed worldwide.
Incidentally, if the name of the vaccine is any indication, it seems that we finally have an answer to Hamlet’s proverbial question.
1. Photo from The New York Times. Pool photo by Jacob King. 8 December 2020. https://static01.nyt.com/images/2020/12/08/world/08virus-briefing-shakespeare1/08virus-briefing-shakespeare1-videoSixteenByNine3000-v3.jpg
2. Photo from the Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal archives. https:// http://www.masslive.com/resizer/-EkOwJKwziyNv79i6B0fm2oj3Zc=/1280×0/smart/cloudfront-us-east-1.images.arcpublishing.com/advancelocal/25YW7WWWUFC23EY6M5UEK2LKUA.jpg
3. Photo from Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/covid-19-trial-volunteer-jonathan-salk-on-vaccine-patents-toy-story-turns-25-d-d-tackles-racism-and-more-1.5809626/what-jonas-salk-s-approach-to-the-polio-vaccine-can-teach-us-about-developing-the-covid-19-shot-1.5809628.
4. Photo from the Philippine General Hospital School of Nursing Ninth Annual Announcement and Catalogue, 1915-1916, U.S. National Archives, College Park, MD. https://news.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/filipino-nurses-03-750-1.jpg
5. Photo from Northampton General Hospital website, PDF, https:// http://www.northamptongeneral.nhs.uk/Patients-and-Visitors/For-inpatients/Downloads/1Complete-uniform-Layout-Adult-final.pdf
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