Vaccine tourism: Is it legal and ethical to fly out for COVID-19 shots? All you need to know

Just like the COWIN slots disappear as soon they become available, a 24-day tour package to Russia with no quarantine and promised shots of the Sputnik V on arrival and exit, disappeared soon after the tour package gained traction on social media.

As per a report in Economic Times, all seats in the trip, organised by Dubai-based travel agency Arabian Nights Tours, have been booked by vaccine seekers from Dubai.

Chances are the entire trip was just a gimmick to gauge attention, but given the buzz this "vaccine tourism" generated, this scheme appears to have a future in India, which is facing a drought of vaccines.

What is vaccine tourism?

Though there is no official definition of vaccine tourism, as per reports any travel/trip taken with a goal to get vaccinated can be dubbed as vaccine tourism. An article in Health.com, equates vaccine tourism to "jumping the line", the only difference being that, here you are "visiting another country or state to get a vaccine not available to you at home".

This, however is not a new trend. In India, the term "vaccine tourism" became popular in November-December 2020 when reports emerged of Indian tour operators taking registrations for tour packages to the US with the additional benefit of a COVID-19 vaccine shot.

Accordign to a report in The Print, Gem Tours & Travels and Chariot World Tours were offering tour packages costing anywhere from Rs 1.29 lakh per person to Rs 1.75 lakh along with the promise for a COVID-19 vaccine shot.

The report also said that similar trips to the UK, lasting 22 days and clubbed with a vaccine shot were in the pipeline by Zenith Holidays for anywhere from Rs 6 lakh per person on single occupancy to Rs 4.5 lakh per person on double occupancy.

According to a report in Economic Times, rich Indians with Dubai residences have been flying to the country to get Pfizer shots since as early as March.

Globally, South Africans have been flying to Zimbabwe, while Canadians and Latinos have been flying to the US for jabs, and some tour operators in Europe have been offering trips to Russia for Sputnik V shots.

Though no longer available, the Arabian Nights Tours package was the latest offer to fly to Russia for Sputnik V shots.

Zenith Holidays, continue to have a vaccine tourism tab on its website. The tour operator doesn't give any details in terms of cost, but it would appear registrations are still being taken for the same.

Is it ethical?

Vaccine tourism has emerged as trend in countries where vaccines are in short supply, or where certain groups are still restricted from being inoculated.

There are, however, lot of concerns over whether or not it's ethical given the fact that most nations, including, UK, India and Canada are vaccinating their citizens as per a set target, prioristing most vulnerable groups over others.

There are only few countries like the US, Russia, France, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Zimbabwe, Iceland, etc, which have adopted a universal coverage policy when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. Still, most countries except for the US, are facing a shortage of vaccines.

So, by travelling to another country for vaccine, it's very likely that someone who might have needed it more was denied of those COVID-19 shots. Hence, it's not an ethical thing to do.

Is vaccine tourism legal?

There is no law that makes it a crime to travel to a foreign country to get vaccinated if air travel is allowed, but given the shortage of vaccines across the world, some countries and local governmets have created certain rules to ensure locals are not devoid of vaccines.

Besides, as of now, there are also no official arrangements in place at the governemnt levels to ensure that those opting for such packages get the services they are promised. All of this could be a scam as well. So, one is advised to tread with caution.

In the US, the state of Florida, which has reportedly been seeing rich Canadians, Brazilians and Venezuelans, as well as people from other states, crashing vaccination centres to get vaccinated, in January passed an order making it mandatory for those seeking a vaccine to produce a proof of local residency.

The advisory, the state said, specifically targetted those "stopping by" just for a COVID shot in other words, vaccine tourists.

“Vaccine tourism is not permitted,” Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency management, said in a statement, according to NBC News. “It’s abhorrent, people should not be flying here to get a vaccine and flying out,” the report quoted him as saying further.

Contrary to this, the New York City recently announced a plan to use "vaccine tourism" to increase footfalls in the city, offering one shot jabs to all outsiders who are from the US.

In the UK, where only to those aged 36 or above are eligible for the vaccine, one can only get the vaccine after being offered it through their doctor, and you need to confirm your personal details, including address, at your appointment for the shot.

Is travelling to neighbouring state/city in India for jabs also vaccine tourism?

Techincally, yes. And it has already been happening in Maharashtra. People from Mumbai have been driving to vaccination centres in rural areas in the neighbouring districts to get vaccinated. This practice has alraedy drawn flak as locals in these areas have been complaining of being unable to get vaccine slots.

However, it's to be noted that as of now, no rule in India prohibits anyone from getting vaccinated anywhere in the country as long they are above 18 and registered on the COWIN platform which can be done only using Aadhaar, PAN Card, Passport, driver's licence, pension passbook, NPR Smart Card and Voter ID card. Indian citizens aged 45 and above are also allowed to walk into vaccination centres and get vaccinated despite having not registered on the COWIN platform.

In India, vacciantion is currently based on eligibility as per age, and not area of residency. So, no, it's not illegal in India yet.


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