Vaccine

The Mother of All Vaccines

The world is afflicted with a colossal problem that has taken the shape of a pandemic and scientists and labs are working overtime to find a vaccine to neutralize this virus. An insular country manages to find a vaccine to nip this problem in the bud, but the Presidential address is hijacked by the Health Minister who lets the cat out of the bag and announces that the vaccine is not needed. What’s going on? 

It’s an extraordinary breakthrough for the island nation, widely known for stressing happiness over high growth. That morning, as Sonny is brushing his teeth, he hears on the radio that the country is ready to roll out its long-awaited vaccine. More details are to be shared at a televised press conference, but the gist is that months of trials at an undisclosed location have shown conclusively that a locally developed vaccine is quite effective in tackling one of the most intractable defects afflicting humans. The entire world has been paying attention-and finally, now comes the proud moment of recognition for this vibrant nation’s bold experiment.


Instead of making his usual coffee, Sonny heads to the nearby café to celebrate. It’s crowded, with not a mask in sight, and the absence of alcohol doesn’t stop it from sounding like a packed bar, as if the home team has just pulled off a spectacular victory against great odds. Of course, this din has nothing to do with the end of a game. Or the end of the pandemic. It’s a toast, happening in other places as well, to what’s been affectionately dubbed VAC4NIP.


Audaciously, it’s a Vaccine for Neutralizing Inherited Prejudice. Only some people think it’s odd, with the vast majority agreeing that VAC4NIP is the perfect name for a vaccine that nips a colossal human problem in the bud. How it does that is anybody’s guess, because the breakdown of VAC4NIP is a closely guarded secret and nobody beyond a tiny elite has access to the data from the successful trials. But the public in this insular nation, unlike the populations of larger countries, trusts the government and the scientific establishment to do the right thing.


There are citizens who say, sotto voce, that VAC4NIP really means Vaccine for Neutralizing Inherited Pigmentation. This doesn’t make sense to others, and they say such speculation is mindless pseudoscience. Regardless of how it works, there is broad support for a vaccine mandate. Wouldn’t it be better to live in a society free of bias, they argue, even if a booster shot is needed every year? Admittedly, there is consternation among a few commentators who warn about social engineering or “skingineering.”


However, since the vaccination hasn’t started, such talk seems overheated to most people. Who knows how long it will take for everybody to get a shot—or is it two jabs? The press conference would make things clearer, Sonny thinks, as the barista hands him his black coffee and breakfast sandwich. Leaving the noisy café, Sonny heads to his car, where he sits and takes gratifying sips of the beverage while checking his phone.


There are two messages. The first one, from his wife, says that her office is closed and she’s coming home. Responding to the broad interest and excitement, the government has declared a national holiday. The second message is from their son, a college student, who says that classes have been cancelled and he’s heading to the dorm to watch the press conference. When Sonny turns on the TV, as his wife joins him on the sofa, the talking heads are still waxing eloquent about the vaccine, predicting how the whole world-not just their small nation-is going to change for the better in the coming years. Apologetically, the moderator cuts off one of the speakers, saying the president is about to deliver his remarks. The view shifts to the press room, where the leader is on the stage with other top officials.


Despite his predilection for long-winded and bombastic speeches, the rotund president keeps his introduction short, as if he has sensed the public’s eagerness to hear more practical details. Pointing out how the nation has become an inspiring laboratory for humankind, he ends with a rousing call to arms: “Do your patriotic duty by getting vaccinated now!”   


When the health minister, an older bespectacled man with a snowy beard, steps up to the microphone, there’s an anticipatory buzz. Looks like a beekeeper, Sonny thinks, putting his phone down. Avuncular and usually jovial, he has more appeal than the slick president. But today the health minister is somber, as if the weight of the moment is not lost on him. Clearing his throat, he says that VAC4NIP has been so successful that it may not be needed.


There’s a puzzled silence. Even the president looks stunned. Is this the minister’s habitual banter? He’s not smiling, though, and there’s no twinkle in his eye. He must be dead serious.

“No vaccine?” somebody says loudly.


The president wants to speak, but he doesn’t get a chance. “Don’t get me wrong,” the minister adds in a firm voice. “The vaccine will be available, but you may not need it. Your body is already capable of fighting the virus. We should all find a way to reach deep inside and turn on the switch. VAC4NIP does it, but there may be another way. Our experiment shows that we can kill the virus of prejudice without injecting any vaccine into the body. We already have the antibodies to kill this virus. But we forgot-or more likely, never learned-how to activate our defense mechanism. In the trials we just concluded, we didn’t use any outside agent to fight the virus of prejudice. VAC4NIP was just a trigger. It helped the individuals reach a heightened state of consciousness, making the battle easier. All the candidates were able to overcome the virus without any vaccine.”


The buzzing starts again, and many hands go up.

“One moment, please,” the minister says, raising his palm. “It will be clearer when I make my final point. You’re baffled when I note that VAC4NIP may not be needed to tackle the problem. Well, that’s because it’s a placebo, not a real vaccine.”


There’s a shocked silence. And then there’s bedlam as all the reporters, abandoning decorum, rise to their feet and shout out their questions in a noisy chorus.

 
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Murali Kamma is the author of 'Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World' (Wising Up Press), which won a 2020 Independent Publisher Book Award. His stories have appeared in Havik 2021, Evening Street Review, Rosebud, Cooweescoowee, The Wild Word, indicia and The Apple Valley Review, among other journals. One of his stories won second place in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition. He's a contributor to New York Journal of Books, and his fiction has also appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2020 and Wising Up Press anthologies. He's the managing editor of Atlanta-based Khabar magazine.