Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has sparked a long overdue conversation in America. It is a discussion that reflects the character of the nation, and yet no one seems willing to engage in it.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York sparked outrage in some quarters of his state last week when he prioritized recovering addicts in residential rehab to receive COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of the elderly, teachers and some essential workers.

In explaining his decision, Cuomo said, “These are congregate facilities. Congregate facilities are problematic. That’s where you have a lot of people in concentration.” Groups of people clearly create increased potential for spread of the virus and threat to life.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis was also under attack as he decided to prioritize those 65 and older to receive the vaccine ahead of some younger essential workers. His decision jumped 5 million older Floridians to the front of the vaccine line. “Jumping the line” has never been invoked this loudly or often outside of the elementary school recess queue. 

The debate over who gets the shot first spans the country. The case has been made that for the continuation of government, federal and state officials and their staffs should get the vaccine, regardless of age. Others make the case for cancer patients, delivery drivers, grocery store workers, state and federal judges, prison inmates, pharmacists, the homeless and those awaiting surgeries. 

All of this questioning leads to the overarching question that no one is asking: “What is the value of a life?” Which could be followed by another question: “Is one life more valuable than another?”

We should embrace and become fully engaged in these questions. The question should be asked regarding the aged and infirm at the end of life, as well as the yet-to-be-born at the beginning of life. It should also include those living on the street, in halfway houses or even those in broken homes. 

This question about the value of a life transcends who should get a vaccine first. How a society answers that question in the way it treats the poor, the aged, the yet-to-be-born, the most vulnerable, the homeless, the addicted, the sick and so many others, speaks volumes about the character of its nation. That is a conversation worth having, and a character worth discovering, defining and developing. 

What is the value of a life? The answer won’t be found by determining who should get a vaccine first. It will be found in the depths of our hearts and then displayed in the way we compassionately treat each other in our daily living.