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Biden's global vaccination push must not ignore Americans abroad

Biden's global vaccination push must not ignore Americans abroad
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There was much to applaud in the White House announcement of plans to share at least 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses globally by the end of June. One important, vulnerable group that was sadly ignored but should be part of any comprehensive framework was Americans abroad. 

Too often forgotten — and sadly forgotten on a bipartisan basis — are an estimated 9 million Americans who live abroad. Even this number from the U.S. State Department is far from a definitive count according to American Citizens Abroad, given the challenges in data collection. 

Yet, as in the private sector, what is not measured is not managed. Those who know Washington also know all too well that what is not counted is too easily ignored, especially when it comes to program frameworks, tax and healthcare policies and all-important budget allocations. 

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I have seen this first hand both in the United States and now in Southeast Asia, where I have been based for the last 12 years pre-pandemic — first in the Philippines, as the U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and more recently in Singapore and Thailand working with a range of social impact-oriented equity funds, ventures and not-for-profits. 

Addressing the plight of Americans abroad this time though is about more than to what degree citizens should be taxed, it is also about helping prevent the loss of American lives.  

Among the numerous Americans living in Thailand, as an example, are expatriate workers and retirees — including U.S. veterans — who are elderly or have health conditions and other comorbidities that put them at real risk of COVID-19. Travel and quarantine expenses, however, make it cost prohibitive for many to return to the United States for vaccinations. 

According to the White House, of the allocation of the first 25 million vaccine doses that the United States will share globally, approximately 7 million will be for Asia — including in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Maldives, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan and the Pacific Islands. 

There is no mention though of whether U.S. citizens abroad will be included as part of this global vaccine sharing efforts. Such a step could be discussed with host governments as part of comprehensive plans to assist nations struggling to vaccinate all their residents, both citizens and non-citizens. A case in point is Thailand, where I spend significant amounts of time as part of my advisory work. Dr. Opas Kankawinpong, head of Thailand’s disease control department, said recently that, "No one is safe until everyone is safe.” 

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His remarks came as part of efforts to reassure an estimated 3 million foreigners in the nation, including thousands of expatriate Americans, that access to vaccines will ultimately be provided. 

In the near-term, however, amidst changing public health announcements and restrictions, Americans and other non-Thais have been excluded in initial vaccination efforts even as Thailand faces a third, more virulent coronavirus wave and struggles in vaccinating its population. Concerns also grow about the plight of refugees and “stateless” people on the Thai-Myanmar borderAccording to the Oxford-affiliated Our World In Data, only about 3.6 percent of Thailand’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine by the end of May.  

One result has been appeals to the Biden administration to ensure Americans living overseas have the same access to free vaccines funded by their tax dollars as do Americans in the United States. So far unheeded, appeals have come both from fellow former U.S. ambassadors as well as numerous U.S. citizens associated with Republican, Democrat and U.S. veterans groups abroad. 

Embarrassingly, a headline in Thailand’s main English language newspaper on June 2 read, “Americans plead for vaccines as top US diplomat visits.” The article noted for good measure, “‘Don’t abandon us!’ was the plea.” 

Strikingly, one nation has already developed a program to vaccinate its citizens in Thailand and elsewhere around the world — China.  

According to the South China Morning Post, Thailand has begun inoculating an estimated 150,000 Chinese nationals living in the country after Beijing donated 500,000 doses of a Chinese-developed vaccine. The “Spring Sprout” vaccine program is part of China’s global campaign to inoculate its nationals living and working abroad, with more than 500,000 Chinese citizens in more than 120 countries having benefited since its launch in March.

With the Biden administration and both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill increasingly in agreement on the need to respond to China’s growing visibility and assertiveness in the IndoPacific region, a vaccination policy that includes vaccines for all Americans abroad — the people on the frontlines of people-to-people engagement — could be an important adjustment that garners bipartisan support.   

Biden has said that the United States would give vaccines to nations in need without expectation of political favors in return — a pointed jab, if you will, at China amid mixed reports of that nation’s approach to “vaccine diplomacy.” With continuing concerns about the huge disparity in vaccination rates between advanced economies and developing countries, Biden also promised “the United States will be an arsenal of vaccines for the world.” 

Living up to that ambitious promise will be no easy matter, but I have confidence that the United States can do so and at the same time take care of our fellow citizens abroad. The key is that we have the will to do so. Let’s start with Thailand America’s oldest ally in Asia

Curtis S. Chin served as the U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007-2010 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Fox News viewers 'perceive a different reality' than other Americans Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide Ending the same-sex marriage wars MORE. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtisSChin