First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Vaccination FOMO and how to deal with it

Maverick Life


Vaccination FOMO and how to deal with it

(Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

Sections of the world are opening up, but in South Africa, thousands are still dying from Covid-19 in the devastating third wave. What toll is this having on our mental health? And what can we do about it?

Apparently, New York City is back. England is quickly peeling away the rules of its lockdown, and in France, President Emmanuel Macron controversially intends to make it mandatory to provide a valid Covid-19 vaccination certificate (or recent negative PCR test) when engaging in non-essential activities (such as visiting bars, restaurants and cinemas). The internet is full of painfully cheesy post-lockdown advertising that feature images of dancing/gathering/kissing bodies on bodies on bodies (like this Extra gum ad, complete with a grand finale of an entire city kissing strangers in a park.) 

Instead of feeling elated and free (assumedly the emotions that these kinds of advertisements are supposed to inspire), this marketing has a different effect on South African audiences. 

Perhaps you, too, would like to roll around in the grass with a stranger, or dance in the streets alongside hundreds of others. Maybe all you really want is the option to visit a “non-essential” service. Alas, with the third wave raging on, and following the recent events that unfolded in our country, the idea of post-pandemic elation seems like a distant mirage. 

The problem is, in today’s globalised reality, many of us are exposed via the internet and social media to masses of content featuring images and stories of people in the West having what looks like the best summer of their lives – the roaring summer of 2021, spreading the joy that’s been bottled up for more than a year. 

Seeing images of friends and loved ones (even celebrities or total strangers) with their arms around each other, sipping cocktails in public places – in tangent with graphs of soaring case numbers, a total booze ban, and a 9pm curfew – might leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

It can leave one feeling immensely… frustrated? Angry? Helpless? Envious? Perhaps caged and stagnant, like life is passing by without you; like you are missing out on something great. You could be suffering from “vaccine FOMO”. 

What is vaccine FOMO? 

FOMO, or “fear of missing out”, is considered a form of social anxiety, “a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, or some other satisfying event, often aroused by posts seen on social media sites”. 

While FOMO might have been felt in various forms since the dawn of human existence, it has become increasingly clear that social media plays a significant role in its ubiquity. Research psychologist, Andrew Przybylski of the University of Essex believes that FOMO is the “driving force behind social media”. The ability to view, constantly, all of the various things that your friends are doing, that you could be doing, increases the anxiety of missing out significantly.   

Dr Uma Kollamparambil uses the term “relative measure”. The basic idea is “if nobody has access to it [in this case the vaccine], then it’s fine, but if some people have access to it and I don’t, that makes me worse off. One would typically consider the concept would apply in this particular case when you observe, at least in Europe and other developed countries, vaccines becoming more readily available there and not in South Africa”. 

Hence, “vaccine FOMO”: the age of globalised media means that we have constant access to visuals and stories of people getting vaccinated and going back to some semblance of their “normal” pre-pandemic lives, while we continue to languish in our Covid-riddled reality. 

Kollamparambil, head of school of economics and finance at the University of Witwatersrand, has been actively involved in the NIDS-CRAM surveys, the nationally representative survey started at the onset of the pandemic. Her involvement was focused largely on mental health during the pandemic, and while findings showed that close to 27% of South Africa’s population is currently very close to severe mental health issues, there have been no significant statistics to prove that seeing the rest of the world open up has been particularly detrimental.

However, she admitted, there were no questions in the surveys that directly asked about this phenomenon. The statistics also don’t take away from the possibility that you, as an individual, might be suffering from something resembling vaccine FOMO. 

According to the Our World in Data website (as of 13 July, as the data is continuously changing) only 2.5% of South Africa’s population have been fully vaccinated, with an additional 4.3% having received their first dose. This is a pathetic figure compared to 89% of England’s population that have received their first dose. It follows that vaccine FOMO could be a very real thing for many people. 

This article on Harvard Health Publishing used the term “vaccine envy”, referring to it as “that feeling of jealousy, disappointment, or resentment you feel when someone else gets the vaccine for Covid-19 – and you can’t”. 

It may bring up feelings of social exclusion and envy or being stuck and stagnant. While vaccine FOMO is an understudied issue for the time being, a paper published on King University Online titled The Psychology of FOMO asserts that this fear of missing out can lead to “lower self-esteem, trouble with sleep, and anxiety”.  

Watching large parts of the world open up while we continue to be stuck in lockdown could be considered a more complex and exaggerated form of this. Not only are we watching what could sometimes look like amazing social interaction happen in other parts of the world, it is also simply impossible to be a part of any of it. It feels unfair because it is unfair. 

Why do we even have to deal with it? 

What makes it especially hard is the knowledge that the vaccination rollout in South Africa has been painfully slow for reasons that could have possibly been avoided, as this article explained. 

Further, the chasm between the Global North (developed countries) and the Global South has been painfully made bare through the pandemic, especially in regard to vaccination policies. Kollamparambil says poor countries are now getting poorer because they are unable to function properly, because of a lack of access to vaccines, while developed countries are stockpiling more than they require and denying the developing countries access to vaccines. 

The term “vaccine colonialism” was explained in this Guardian article, and is also one of the reasons that South Africans are lagging behind in their vaccine rollout. The states that govern the very people whose vaccination status we are envious of, are also the ones denying us access to these vaccines.

This, Kollamparambil explains, is shortsighted and petty. The world is irreversibly globalised, developed countries need to realise that no one is safe until everyone is safe. 

“It is in the interests of the developed countries themselves to ensure vaccination across the world to prevent the mutants.

“It’s not just about people, it’s about the supply chains of even flagship products of developed countries. Like the iPhone. The bulk of the components of iPhones are produced in multiple countries. So even developed countries cannot thrive efficiently on their own, without the support of their global value chains. Vaccine nationalism is the most short-sighted thinking that one can imagine.” 

How does one deal with this feeling? 

Here are a few coping strategies. 

Know that many of us are in the same boat. Part of FOMO is feeling socially excluded and isolated. It’s helpful to remember that there is community to be found in the knowledge that other people might be suffering from these feelings too. 

Find your flow. Whether you are languishing or suffering from FOMO, flow time could be a way to cope with the painful hours of continued lockdown. Flow time – or doing an activity that absorbs you – is a way to stop thinking, at least momentarily, about what this article on Wired calls, “the painful uncertainty” that you may be feeling. This could include any activity during which it feels like time melts away: playing guitar, crocheting, baking bread, cleaning… even playing video games counts. 

Achieving a state of wonder. “One of the most effective tips for assuaging the agony of painful uncertainty is to find ways to stop thinking about it.” And according to this article, engaging in activities that leave you thinking “wow”, is a surefire way to achieve this. Like flow time, this looks different for everyone, but it might take the form of going on an incredible hike, or listening to a supreme feat of classical music, or maybe even watching a movie that you think is particularly skillfully done. Try to find ways to be in awe of the world around you, no matter how fleetingly. 

Remember that social media is an illusion. Most of these accounts are specifically curated to show only the most exciting parts of people’s lives. Remembering that things are never as fun or cool as they look online is an important part of alleviating FOMO. 

Or think about deleting social media… Or spending less time on it. As a major trigger of FOMO, paying less attention to a screen could help you be much more present in the activities that you can and are getting involved in daily. 

Be kind to yourself. The pandemic has been hard on all of us on a variety of levels. Living in uncertainty is stressful, try not to be angry at yourself for feeling low. Do things to remind yourself that you are important and valuable: take a bath, watch your favourite movie, talk to someone you love, exercise… whatever makes you feel good. DM/ML


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted