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Latin America’s COVID wave prompts a spike in vaccine tourism

watoday-Florencia Gonzalez Alzaga, a photographer from Buenos Aires, hatched her plan to fly to the United States for a coronavirus vaccine after the subject came up in her Zoom book club.

Juan Pablo Bojaca, an Instagram influencer from Colombia who specialises in frugal travel, urged his 137,000 followers to give it a try, posting a step-by-step video guide that showed him clearing passport control in Miami.

Jose Acevedo, a real estate agent in Paraguay, was stunned by how easy the whole thing was in Las Vegas.

Frustrated with the lagging pace of vaccine campaigns at home and seeing a surplus of doses in the United States — where tens of millions of Americans have opted not to get inoculated — wealthy and middle-class Latin Americans with American tourist visas have been flocking to the United States in recent weeks to score a COVID-19 shot.

“It’s like a dream,” said Gonzalez, who got her shot in Miami in April.

The access has proved a bonanza for the privileged in countries where the virus continues to take a brutal toll — even if many, including those who are benefiting, struggle with the fact that vaccine tourism exacerbates the inequality that has worsened the pandemic’s toll.

Sean Simons, a spokesman for the ONE Campaign, which works to eradicate disease and poverty, said vaccine travel could have serious unintended consequences, and urged nations with vaccine surpluses to funnel them instead through the World Health Organisation vaccine distribution system known as COVAX.

“Millionaires and billionaires travelling across continents or oceans to get a vaccine, usually twice, means greater exposure, higher likelihood of variants spreading and access only for the most elite,” he said.

The Biden administration said this month that it would give 80 million vaccine doses by the end of June to countries that are scrambling to vaccinate their people.

Still, as success stories of Latin Americans getting their jabs are shared on social media posts and by word-of-mouth, and local officials in New York and Alaska actively encourage vaccination tourism, the cost of airfare on several routes has skyrocketed as thousands make plans to head north.

Travel agencies in the region have begun selling vaccination packages, including multi-country itineraries for Brazilians, who must spend two weeks in a third country before being allowed to enter the United States.

Jose Carlos Brunetti, the vice president of Maral Turismo, a travel agency in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, said these trips had been a godsend for his industry after a dismal year.

“The frenzy to travel to the United States to try to get vaccinated began in March,” he said. “Now we’re seeing exponential growth in the number of passengers and flights.”

Mauricio Macri, the former president of Argentina, vowed in February that he would not “be vaccinated until the last Argentine in a high-risk group and all essential workers have”.

Argentina is facing a widespread epidemic that experts believe is being fuelled in part by a highly contagious variant first detected in Brazil.

Despite his vow to wait, Marci wrote in a post on Facebook this month that he had received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccination in Miami after realising that “vaccines are being applied everywhere, from beaches to malls and even at pharmacies”.

The early wave of Argentine vaccine travellers who returned home with American vaccine certificates drove a sharp rise in the cost of airfare, said Santiago Torre Walsh, who runs a popular travel blog called Sir Chandler.

Travellers were initially reluctant to acknowledge the purpose of their trip, he said.

“Now, that’s changed,” he said. “People seem more willing to talk about it openly, and that, in turn, motivates other people to do it as well.”

That’s what Bojaca, the Colombian Instagram influencer, did. The video of his vaccination journey, posted on Instagram, includes a surreptitiously recorded scene in which an American passport control officer asked whom he was visiting. He and a travel companion said they were visiting friends.

“The guy didn’t even ask what we came here to do,” Bojaca marvelled in a subsequent scene in the video. “I had practiced like 80 times how to say ‘vaccines’ in English.”

Acevedo, the real estate agent in Paraguay, said he had come to see his vaccine trip as a worthwhile investment and possibly a lifesaving step, because being overweight puts him at higher risk.

“I can’t stop working, producing, and my work entails contact with many people,” he said.

He reasoned that by securing an American vaccine, he is easing the burden on the Paraguayan government.

“Part of this is not taking up a dose from people who need them more,” he said.

The New York Times.

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