Emily Meggs | Latin America Fellow
As Latin America surpasses one million COVID-19 deaths, there is no end in sight. In May alone, 31 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in the world were in Latin America. The region’s lack of vaccine production plants has driven the wealthy and elite to the United States in a fervour of ‘vaccine tourism’. This tourism is a stark display and reminder of the inequality embedded in a region that has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of June 2021, only three per cent of Latin America’s population has received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, only 32 million vaccines have been delivered through the COVAX scheme to an area with a population of over 646 million.
Decades of unequal development, conditions on structural development loans, conflict, and political instability, coupled with centuries of inequality has created the perfect conditions for a pandemic health crisis in Latin America.
The effect of institutionalised inequality is laid bare in many Latin American states’ healthcare systems. Before the pandemic, these systems were already incredibly stressed due to chronic underfunding, difficulty retaining staff, and other diseases such as tuberculosis or dengue fever. Societal inequality stemming from poverty, poor WASH practices, high-density living, and poor nutrition and food insecurity have already pushed several states to the brink of collapse. The Inter-American Development Bank asserts that a decade of underfunding health systems left several of these nations prone to the health crisis that has since unfolded.
Furthermore, as many as 38 per cent of Latin Americans work in the informal labour sector; and lack of subsidised healthcare or unemployment benefits have rendered many lockdowns ineffective as many people live hand-to-mouth. The economic impacts suffered from the pandemic have affected low-income families who live in deprived areas, as they cannot safely socially distance themselves and have to make difficult financial decisions between food or medicine. The pandemic has plunged millions more into poverty with job losses. The International Monetary Fund predicts that consequently, between 2015-2025, Latin America’s overall economy will contract rather than grow.
Vaccine tourism has exploded in Latin America in 2021. Airline prices have surged across the region with people travelling to the United States to be vaccinated due to the slow rollout in nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. Over 120, 000 people from Mexico alone have travelled to the United States so far on vaccine travel packages.
This trend is growing rather than slowing down, and this is alarming for a few reasons. There is an obvious privilege afforded to the wealthy and political elite at the expense of their compatriots who cannot afford vaccination tourism. Those who choose to travel for vaccinations justify their decision by highlighting a lack of trust in public health systems, fake medicine, and supply delays for the second shot. This exacerbates two-tier healthcare systems already present in many countries such as Peru.
However, a greater concern surrounding this tourism is the travel over thousands of kilometres across land and ocean. This creates a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 and an increased risk of creating and spreading new and dangerous variants of the virus. The Lambda variant originated in Peru in December 2020, and since then has spread to 29 countries, including Australia. It is now a ‘Variant of Interest’ to the World Health Organization.
Any surplus of vaccines due to oversupply or vaccine hesitancy from developed countries could be better used and more ethically allotted to the COVAX system or as a part of the 80 million vaccine doses the Biden administration has promised to donate globally. In the COVAX scheme, they can be equally distributed amongst poorer countries that cannot buy large amounts of the vaccines, many of which are located in Latin America.
The healthcare issues faced in Latin America about vaccine equity are a part of a broader global trend of vaccine hoarding by more developed states. This does nothing to mitigate the suffering of those where the virus is still prevalent. The inequity of vaccine distribution for COVID-19 has been a hot topic at this year’s World Health Assembly. COVAX is predicted to be 190 million doses short of what was promised by June and without patent waivers, these woes will continue for Latin America and other regions that do not have an established regional production hub. Latin America will not be immune from another health catastrophe if a Pandemic Preparedness Treaty is not negotiated and ratified.
There is hope, as Cuba is developing its own vaccine, which they hope will reinvigorate their fledgling economy, and more importantly, provide a vaccination centre in the region.
Vaccine tourism affords a greater privilege to those who can afford it and will continue to exacerbate inequality in Latin America. A wealthy few can circumvent their nations inability to quickly vaccinate their populations. For those who cannot afford it, they face months of uncertainty and risk.
Emily Meggs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.