Vaccine Tourism: An Ethical Conundrum

Nothing about Covid-19 is fair. Protecting the world’s population with the vaccine is highlighting individual and national ethical dilemmas. The newest of which is “vaccine tourism.” People from all over the world are coming to the US to get the shot. There are websites dedicated to promoting and facilitating vaccine tourism.

First let me say that everyone equally deserves the vaccination. Those at greatest risk and with the greatest exposure should get it first. In most places this means the elderly and frontline workers. We all want the vaccine (or at least most of us do). We all need the vaccine.

The question is, how do we weigh personal and national roles in vaccine access?

The US and Great Britain have some of the best access to the vaccines (sounds reminiscent of empire, no?). They produce vaccines and having resources, made advance deals to spur research and acquire doses. They have prioritized vaccinating their own people. The global North is seen as “hogging” the available vaccines.

How does “hogging” vaccine distribution mesh with democracy? Democratically elected officials are responsible to their constituents. It is their job to create public policies that benefit those who elected them. If they didn’t prioritize vaccinating their own people, they wouldn’t be doing their job. Selfishness and democracy are baked into the fact that vaccines go to wealthy countries.

Covax is the international mechanism established to secure vaccines for economically disadvantaged countries. Their goal is to secure enough doses for 20 percent of a country’s population. It is the right idea, but the rollout has been slow, in part because wealthy countries have had the first shot at vaccines.

Mexicans are understandably frustrated with slow vaccine delivery. Some blame their own government, and some blame the North for hogging doses. Given the global inequities, what are the ethical questions around vaccine tourism?

Vaccine tourism to the US is not available to all Mexicans, only those with money. Mexicans living close to the border cannot use their crossing card to get a vaccine. Border crossings are still restricted by the US to “essential” travel. But anyone with the resources and a visa can fly to the US. If they go to a state that doesn’t have a residency requirement for the vaccine, they can get the shot. In the US there are no clear rules against vaccine tourism.

For communities in the US and travel businesses, vaccine tourism can be a way to boost long dormant economic activity. Tourists spend money when they travel for the vaccine. Using the vaccine to lure people to a US destination while other countries have little access – that’s not right.

Here’s what I think. The vaccine should be seen as a public good. There should not be patent restrictions on its production. Countries with excess vaccine need to make it available to other nations. Everyone deserves the vaccine. Everyone should get it as soon as it is available to them. Everyone should strive to make the process more equitable. I realize that those last two sometimes contract each other.

I am well aware that my views are rooted in my position of privilege. I’ve had the vaccine and if I had not, I would be trying to figure out how to get it. Let’s face it, none of us are getting out of the Covid-19 moral dilemma ethically unscathed. As virus variants develop, even the rich may not get out of the pandemic physically unscathed, because as the leaders of Covax keep reminding us, “no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.”

*First published on May 10, 2021 in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s,

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