Q: What if there was a vaccine for prejudice?
CHAPTER ONE: THE PREP
Pain underlying the rhythmic pulse of sobs. The tears. The agony. I could hear her weeping next door. Wailing as if her heart was breaking. It probably was. Mine probably would too if I wasn’t a man. Wait. What did I just say? I sighed. The vaccine was wearing off or it wasn’t potent enough. The last few years had only been 33% accurate and it was beginning to show.
I went in and gave my little mother a hug. It’s going to be alright, I told her. I’m going to be fine. Please don’t cry. Inside I was feeling something different. Fear, anger, despair. Feelings I haven’t really ever had.
Tomorrow I was being drafted to the front-line. Becoming an ‘imperative worker’, as they now referred to us, elevating our status so we wouldn’t feel disgruntled for what was essentially dog’s work. Dog’s work…Pause. Reflect. Another blip in my thinking…note to report derogatory thoughts. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. I have a master’s degree in applied mathematics from Cambridge but the endless Depression of the 20s meant that all that I was good for now was taking down people’s details at the A&E Reception. All workplaces were now ‘Covid secure’ and PPE plentiful but the skyscraper number of deaths from the high-risk groups meant that they were now mandated to be in the ‘back line’ in the safe cocoon of office management. In the meantime, we were pushed out front. Pause. Not again. My non-PC thoughts. Watch yourself. Remember, they’re listening.
Once it became evident that there was to be no vaccine for the coronavirus, scientific and political focus swiftly moved on to the Prejudice Vaccine. They had to. Society was breaking down and the age-old social divides based on ‘ECRAGE’ (economic-race-gender) lines unearthed during the Brexit years were being magnified by the virus. We needed a saviour. We needed a narrative like the one they created moons ago with Christ.
That’s how we got PREVA, the Prejudice Vaccine. The same Oxford team working on the coronavirus project managed to identify areas of the brain that controlled prejudicial thoughts and found a way to disable the neural building blocks that triggered negative reactions. Since then we’ve been encouraged to inoculate ourselves every year along with our winter flu jabs. Whilst the politicians worked on ‘fairer’ policies like the conscription of the young and resilient to front-line jobs. We shouldn’t complain, really, most of us have been unemployed since graduating and our debt to society grows every day…
I could still hear my mother crying. She’s so sensitive and emotional. You would think I was dying. Not going out to work and getting paid, if you could call it that. Stop. Re-phrase. Pause. Change subject.
At least I hadn’t tried to leave the country in order to dodge front-line service. Although there wasn't anywhere to go since Brexit. Last thing I heard, some of my uni friends were in Belize but who knows.
Others turned to self-harm or caused disruptions so that they would be signed off. So short-termist. We need to see the bigger picture here. We all need to buy into this, even the anti-prevaxxers, so that we can all improve society. Not create another stereotype.
I stopped, turned off the camera and took off my neuro-headset. I pressed send. Within minutes, Dad’s Chief Advisor had called.
You need to tone down your thoughts boy, he said. The public want to hear honesty but not too much of it. They need to feel like you are one of them, even though clearly you’re not. We’ll need to administer the latest version of the vaccine to subdue those detrimental thoughts. Keep practising and I expect perfection by the time of the interview tomorrow. Got it? He rang off.
I sat and went through my lines again. Now that the journalists could tap into our thoughts, it was getting harder to hide behind the illusion. My father needed me to dial up the fear of not getting the vaccine and help push his latest policies through. Only then would I be able to stop pretending to work on the ‘front-line’ and go back to my usual life. Perhaps we could let mother in on it then. She would stop crying.
Momentarily, the sound of her sobs made me feel remorse. I suppressed the feeling. I was my father’s son. Or was I? The uncomfortable feeling in my heart lingered. What was that? Guilt? I tried to push it away but it kept eating away at me. What did it want? I was just a young man, starting out on my life’s journey. So what if I had privilege on my side? It wasn’t my choosing. How did it expect me to stand up against years of tradition, patriarchy, the institution…my father. I could just close my eyes to it and enjoy what was rightfully mine. But was it? What made it so? History, birth, chance? I could just as easily been born into another family. A family not as fortunate as mine. Would I not want someone on my side? Fighting with me for what’s right and fair? But what could I do? I was only a David against the machine that is Goliath…
CHAPTER TWO: COURAGE
The flickering lights from the TV dappled her face. My poor, little mother fast asleep on the kitchen table. Washed out from all the crying. The years of standing by my father finally taking their toll. I wished I could protect her from him. Just like the slumber shielding her from the scenes of unrest dancing in front of her on the TV.
I placed a blanket gently over her frail shoulders and she stirred. Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you, I whispered. She looked up at me and smiled, her brave smile that I no longer believed. Why don’t you go to bed. She nodded meekly like a small child and headed up the stairs. At the top, she looked down at me. He can’t help being the way he is you know, she said. He’s been written that way.
They say that we are the products of our family. My father being a case in point. His unrelenting desire to become the opposite of his father.
His father was the gentle one, always at the mercy of his father and then his wife. Dad spoke of him with such disdain, it made me uncomfortable. Sometimes he would look at me with contempt and I knew that I reminded him of his father. I would feel displeasure oozing from his pores and, just like his father, I would do everything to please away his irritations. I hated myself for it.
The morning of the campaign interview, I felt nauseous. All I could think of was how to convince the public to sign up for PREVA, the Prejudice vaccine. So many of my father’s business friends depended on it. I needed their esteem too.
In my ear piece, I could hear Dad’s Chief Advisor listing out all of my tasks. His monologue turned into muffled vibrations, out of which a different voice emerged. Don’t follow in my mistakes. Be the man I couldn’t be, it said. I inhaled sharply. Grandfather? He had passed years ago. How could this be?
I looked over at my mother, smiling bravely next to my father. He caught my eye and nodded to indicate that I commence my duty.
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Paralysed. I wanted to say the right thing, that I believed in PREVA, that it would create a fair and uniform society. A place where we could all be proud. Where ‘the other’ was abolished and shared humanity celebrated. I wanted to do this without stoking fear, without creating factions, without deception.
I could hear the Chief Advisor shouting at me through my ear piece. The journalists could hear my thoughts. I was off brief. What was I up to?
I could hear my grandfather speaking over him, urgency in his voice. Tell them that we can only achieve a fairer society if we stand up to oppression. Only if we stand up to those who want to dominate us.
I could hear myself repeating his words out loud. The look on my father’s face. Murderous. I knew then what I had to do. Let me continue, I whispered to my grandfather. Let me finish this.
We first need to level the playing field, I stated. Alarm cascaded around the room. We need those who are going to benefit financially from PREVA to have the vaccine themselves, I said. They need to lead by example. Only then can others be influenced.
My father stormed towards me. Get him off, he hissed. Security guards grabbed me as I held on to the microphone. How can we have a society with no prejudice, if the men at the top won’t stop looking down on you, I shouted?
I was pinned to the ground. The microphone crashed to the floor and a high pitch sound echoed. The journalists delighted in the commotion as photographers flashed their bulbs. A look of disgust appeared on my father’s face as he glared at me.
It was over. My burst of courage quelled in an instant. Once again, I was the ‘the other’. The problem. The cause for the unrest. I deserved the prejudice bestowed upon me.
We will have it. A voice, clear and distinct reverberated around the room. My husband and I will have the vaccine, she repeated. It was my mother, taking up the mic, gathering up all of her courage to stand in front of the contemptuous crowd.
All eyes were suddenly on my father as he froze, hesitated and then turned on his politician’s smile. Of course we will, he said. That was always the plan. Let go of my son, he continued.
For a moment, I was elated. I had overcome Goliath. Or had I? My father had been cornered in to doing the right thing. Or had he? Elation became dread. My father never conceded so easily. Institutions never crumbled so swiftly. What was he up to?
CHAPTER THREE: THE AWAKENING
We are equal, we are one, sang the latest government campaign on the big screens around city centres. The mood of the country had pacified since the top tier of society had been forced to take PREVA, the Prejudice Vaccine.
My father was a different man. Empathic, less judgemental, even kind. My mother and I watched on with disbelief and suspicion. The man who used to look at me with disdain was now full of love and praise. It unsettled me. I kept wishing my grandfather’s voice would come over in my ear piece whenever I did one of my regular PREVA press briefings. It never did. Not since the day I stood up to my father for the first time in my life.
To please the people, all of my father’s associates had to endure live broadcasts of their vaccinations. The only one who managed to evade it was the Chief Advisor, hidden behind the shadows of the governmental machine. Also me. I kept asking for a booster, having had feelings of contempt well up from time to time as I went through CCTV footage of incidents happening around the country. Discrimination levels might be falling but that didn’t mean that poverty and crime had been eradicated over night. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry by the scenes. Why couldn’t they see the bigger picture? Why were they being so selfish?
In fact, it was me who had become near-sighted without realising it. I stopped seeing the hardships that had been endured over centuries. I stopped seeing others as people, trying to survive the system. All I could see was numbers. Statistics.
As my father and his friends became gentler in their outlook, I became more obsessed. I wanted the numbers to tell a different story. One of hope and harmony. I began asking the Chief Advisor for more access to law enforcement meetings and he happily made introductions on my behalf to all the right people. I wanted to eradicate crime. Make the country a safer place. I was beginning to see that PREVA was not going to heal ECRAGE wounds immediately. In my mind, we had to reset in order to achieve unity.
I bossed my father into changing the law to one strike imprisonment. He hesitated at first but eventually caved. So malleable. He used to be so strong. So much more of a man. I began to regard him with the disdain he once felt towards me.
The night of his re-election, I sat down with him for a congratulatory whisky. I asked him how he was going to run this country without a backbone. What has happened to you Dad? You used to be so dynamic, so decisive. Where have you gone?
He looked at me and laughed. I’m still here, he said, but where are you? You’re no longer that son that disappoints me. There’s fire in you now. I saw it flicker for the first time that day you stood up to me.
My father continued. I knew then that you were going to be the solution. The Chief Advisor saw it too. You showed you had the capacity to continue our ascendance. How you’ve excelled. All your policing ideas. We had to regain the trust of the people by getting vaccinated ourselves. My ratings were going down before your outburst. Now they have never been better, thanks to you.
He paused and looked pensive. You know, that wasn’t the only reason for letting this happen, he said. Do you know why else I did it? I shook my head. I wanted to stop feeling such contempt towards you. I got tired of feeling so much disappointment. I wanted to feel pride. Isn’t that how it’s meant to be?
For a moment, he looked human. Vulnerable, even fragile. I wanted to comfort him. Was this going to be the father / son scene that I had yearned for all these years? I opened my mouth to deliver the speech I had been rehearsing but stopped myself. His resolve had hardened. Like the sun behind a cloud, I was once again in darkness.
What have I done now, I asked bitterly. My father chuckled to himself sadly and turned to me. The irony is, my boy, he said, with the effects of PREVA, now I just feel ashamed of you.
He turned away, as if he couldn’t bear to look at me any longer. Just like before. That familiar feeling. Being ‘the other’. My heart broke.
I ran in search of my mother, as I had done many times before. Hoping for her open arms to comfort me. They were reluctant. You’ve become just like your father, she said. I could see the disappointment now in her eyes.
Somehow I was no longer a David. I had become Goliath. In wanting to belong, I had lost myself. Any privilege guilt I might have had, now totally vanished. I once had ideals, now I only saw reality. I had given in to the circle of prejudice.
I wondered to myself if I was strong enough to break the cycle. I heard my mother crying next door. Wailing as if her heart was breaking. It probably was. Mine probably would too if I wasn’t a man.
My words made me pause. I went in to my mother’s room and went over to her bent over figure. I may be my father, I said, but I am also my mother. You stood up to him in front of the whole country. Show me how to be courageous again and let’s do it together. PREVA may not be the instantaneous saviour that we all hoped for. You are. We need to remind the people of that. We may not be equal, we may not be one but we are all human. We need to recognise our differences and use that to bring about change. We all need to belong. Let’s make ‘the other’ something to be proud of. Come on Mum.
I held out my hand to her. To my not-so-little mother. The mother of David and Goliath combined.
Photo: Alina Grubnyak