Americans living abroad plead for COVID-19 vaccine

Americans living abroad plead for COVID-19 vaccine
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Americans living abroad are pleading with the U.S. government to provide them with COVID-19 vaccine doses, particularly as demand is waning domestically with a majority of adults getting their shots.

Expats living in places like Germany, India and Thailand are finding they have to choose between waiting until a vaccine is available in their country of residency or risk a trip to the U.S. or elsewhere to get vaccinated, potentially contracting the coronavirus en route.

Through letters to officials and lawmakers, advocacy groups have called attention to the dilemma faced by some of the estimated 9 million private U.S. citizens overseas, pointing out that they remain subject to federal tax laws just like Americans living in the U.S. who have already received the vaccine.

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Retired U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Samuel Wright, an 81-year-old Vietnam veteran, is one of many veterans living in Thailand. He has not yet been able to get access to the vaccine, saying he feels “abandoned” and “betrayed.”

“It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under us,” Wright said. “They’ve left us here to die.”

As part of the age group most vulnerable to severe illness, Wright said he and his wife are not willing to play “Russian roulette” and risk traveling to the U.S. to get their shots.

Michael DeSombre, a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, traveled with his wife and three children to their house in the U.S. to get vaccinated. But he acknowledged that not all American expatriates have the money to travel to the U.S., stay for several weeks to get both shots and pay to quarantine in a hotel if their country requires it upon their return.

“I do think that it is an obligation of America to protect Americans,” said DeSombre, who was ambassador during the Trump administration. “And in a global pandemic, helping ensure that Americans can be vaccinated should be a top priority.”

In Thailand, Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas teamed up with other organizations in early May to call on the State Department to launch a pilot program to figure out how to get vaccine doses to Americans overseas.

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Thailand has vowed to vaccinate its citizens before giving shots to foreigners, no matter their risk factors or age.

A survey conducted by Democrats Abroad Thailand found that 98 percent of 1,220 Americans in the country said they wanted a U.S.-provided and approved vaccine.

Other countries have launched efforts to vaccinate their citizens in Thailand, including China, which donated 500,000 doses last month in exchange for an agreement for Thailand to give doses to Chinese nationals.

“It's kind of embarrassing when the American can’t do what the Chinese did,” said Tony Rodriguez, Republicans Overseas’ vice president for Asia.

France unveiled its plan to vaccinate its citizens in Thailand on Monday through partnerships with eight hospitals. Starting Wednesday, French nationals age 55 or older will be eligible to register for a free vaccine.

The Biden administration on Monday announced plans to allocate 55 million vaccine doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, without any requirements for recipient countries to vaccinate American citizens living there. The U.S. donation includes about 16 million doses for at least 18 Asian countries, including India and Thailand.

The U.S. previously donated 25 million doses overseas and committed to send 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses between August and the first half of 2022.

In India, all adult citizens qualify for the vaccine, but supply is not meeting demand. Children in India are not eligible for shots yet, sparking concerns of another devastating COVID-19 wave.

Suma Shamanna, country chair of Democrats Abroad India who has been abroad for 10 years, said she’s worried to take her 17-year-old son to the U.S., where he is eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, out of concern he would contract the coronavirus during the more than 24 hour journey.

“It’s like choosing between an awful devil and the deep sea,” she said. “I don't know what to do. So many people are in a similar situation.”

Candice Kerestan, the international chair of Democrats Abroad, said she has decided to stay put in Germany and wait her turn, which she expects will come around October. She said she’s worried that leaving the country to seek a vaccine elsewhere could risk her reentry in the event that Germany or the European Union change the rules on foreign citizens.

“This is the reality that we're facing in a lot of corners of the world,” she said.

A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that the agency “has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of citizens overseas,” adding that Americans living abroad should check their U.S. embassy’s website for vaccine availability and eligibility requirements.

“The Department of State does not provide direct medical care to private U.S. citizens abroad,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to providing all possible consular assistance to U.S. citizens in need overseas, including by providing information on local medical resources when appropriate.”

Marylouise Serrato, executive director of American Citizens Abroad, said the federal government should try to distribute vaccines to as many of its citizens as possible to help halt the pandemic.

“Given the situation, this just isn't about health care,” she said. “It's about fairness and accessibility, and we believe that it's an opportunity for the U.S. government to do the right thing for all its citizens, including those that are living overseas.”

J. Stephen Morrison, director of global health policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. faces a “somewhat difficult, agonizing set of trade-offs” with no “quick and satisfying solutions for this.”

He said he does not see the U.S. taking on responsibility to vaccinate millions of Americans living abroad as an option, saying it would be a “huge commitment” and that even the State Department struggled to get its personnel vaccinated worldwide.

“Our embassies are not built to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens,” Morrison said. “They're not built for that purpose.”