GOV. CHARLIE BAKER has taken a lot of heat for the woeful performance of the state’s coronavirus vaccine distribution program. Given his claim to fame as an effective manager with experience in health care administration, the rollout should have been in Baker’s wheelhouse. Yet Massachusetts has lagged behind most other states in both efficiency and equity.
Apparently the job description needs to be revised. Have we been looking for the wrong skill set in terms of getting shots in arms? Who is best suited to move the product to market while confronting a constantly changing set of barriers. The answer is obvious: Russell “Stringer” Bell.
For those who have not had the good fortune of watching the brilliant television series “The Wire,” Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba) is introduced as the second in command of the Barksdale drug-dealing crew in Baltimore set sometime in the first decade of this century. Bell is the cerebral consigliere to the hot-headed Avon Barksdale, whose willingness to engage in violence led to his arrest at the end of Season 1.
As the series’ seasons progressed, Bell took over in Barksdale’s absence and, despite facing law enforcement scrutiny, wiretaps, competition from other gangs, and the constant threat of armed retribution, managed to continually get a steady supply of drugs into the hands and arms of his clientele. And for those who might question the wisdom of placing a gangster in charge of a large-scale vaccination program, it is worth noting that Stringer Bell expanded the conventional notion of a drug dealer. He took business courses at a local college, invested drug money in real estate, established a retail co-op for area dealers, and eschewed random violence as a solution to the constant challenges. Shots in the arm? Mulitple doses of the same product? Bell’s system was never plagued by the fits and starts we’ve seen in the state’s rollout.
For those who might question the wisdom of placing a fictional character in charge of such an important campaign, we have a superior real-life model as well. West Virginia has led the way in terms of distributing the vaccine in spite of its predominantly rural nature. Why? The powers-that-be decided the best way to get doses into every remote holler was through the existing pharmacy system. Certainly, the performance of some of the state’s pharmacies during the opioid crisis demonstrated that they were remarkably effective in terms of dispensing Oxycontin and Fentanyl to thousands of West Virginians and visitors from neighboring states.
Why not rely on experience instead of overrated reputation? In the wise words of Stringer Bell, “You gotta be fierce, I know that. But more than that, you gotta show some flex, give and take on both sides.”
Mark Erlich lives in Jamaica Plain and is a fan of “The Wire.” He is a member of the board of MassINC, the parent company of CommonWealth.