Berlin - Hannah Wilson had to return to Montana in early March for personal reasons. She had been staying with her husband in Potsdam after corona halted her Fulbright teaching position in Serbia in March of 2020. Wilson is a lawyer and, when she returns to Potsdam in April, hopes to continue her research in data privacy, practically Germany’s national sport.
While she was aware that the US vaccination programme had made more progress than Germany’s stumbling efforts, she hadn't planned on getting immunised out of fear she would be bumping someone out of line who might need it more.
“Someone in my mother's book club heard that they were offering vaccines to anyone in the community, so I called them and they sent an intake form and the next day they were able to schedule my vaccination appointment,” she said in an online interview. The vaccination centre was a private rural pharmacy an hour-and-a-half drive from her parent's place and she explicitly asked them if she would be bumping someone out of line. They told her no and that the vaccine would go to waste if she didn't get vaccinated.
“I have to go back four weeks after the initial vaccination for the second dose. They scheduled that for me after I successfully received dose No. 1!” she said. Wilson said she might have just gotten lucky because of her rural location.
Within a week
Wilson is one of probably tens of thousands of immigrants who live in Germany that are able to take advantage of better vaccination programmes at home. Germany so far has vaccinated just under 4 per cent of its population while Montana is already above 11 per cent. The state’s governor this week said he would open immunisations to anyone over the age of 16 starting 1 April.
“I was initially a little nervous to share that I had received the Covid vaccine so early because I felt guilty that I was able to get it so quickly, but now I get the sense that if someone wants one, they could get one within the week if they tried,” she said. Other friends in the US told her they were able to get vaccinated by arriving at pharmacies near closing time when they would rather vaccinate anyone than discard expiring doses.
“I think if you have the opportunity to get the vaccine you should,” Wilson said.
Stefan Gosepath, a professor of philosophy at Berlin's Free University, says immigrants who can legally become a part of their home country's vaccination programme and aren't denying a needier person access to the vaccine needn't hesitate.
“If yes, then they should of course be glad to take advantage of the opportunity. Why not?” he wrote in an e-mail. “They're protecting themselves and others and free up a place in the German vaccination programme.”
Still, Gosepath says going home for vaccination carries certain risks, including the creation of a black market.
“This kind of travel can lead to predatory competition, which should be avoided,” he wrote.
Wilson isn't the only expatriate who has benefitted from her home country's more successful vaccination programme. Martin Kelly works in IT and has lived in Berlin for three years. In April he has to return to the UK to visit his mother who has cancer.
“I found out I would be eligible for vaccine at the same time,” Kelly said, also in an online interview. He now just has to use a website to pick his appointment and said it’s a toss-up whether he will receive the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine or AstraZeneca. He doesn't have a preference.
Kelly said he’s aware of the increased Covid risk travelling creates, so he’s going to drive and avoid contact — and quarantine when he gets back to Berlin. Not much of a problem when working from home. He’ll also head back 12 weeks later to get the second dose — again by car.
Like most in Germany, he’s grown impatient with this country’s serial Covid-19 gaffes: “I cannot imagine being a German politician and having to think about having been out-governed by Boris Johnson and his gang of clowns.”
Vaccines are needed no matter where they come from.
Crossing borders to get vaccinated is an idea that evolved along with vaccines but admittedly is only an option for immigrants and the wealthy.
London-based Knightsbridge Circle, a members-only travel agent, in January began offering a 21-day trip to Dubai that includes first-class airfare and vaccination with the Biontech vaccine, according to the Telegraph. Cost? £40,000(€46,784) plus the club's reported £25,000 annual membership.
More affordable tours — between €2,000 and €3,000 — reportedly include a quick trip to Turkey for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine or even the one-shot Johnson & Johnson on a plane over Europe. So far, few appear to have taken the trips.
But Ceci Machado Vimercati said in an online interview she's ready to fly to get immunised. She's also been in Berlin for three years and is planning a trip in the coming weeks to her native Uruguay (she’s also part Italian) to get vaccinated with China's CoronaVac. She too has grown impatient with the German government’s inability to let the populace know when they’ll actually get vaccinated.
“Uruguay is a developing country that started 15 days ago with vaccines and has made it faster and easier,” she said. The centre-right government there isn’t charging for vaccines, meaning she’ll only be out of pocket for the flight. The government there knew “that vaccines are needed no matter where they come from.”
Back in Montana, data privacy researcher Wilson said she was surprised by how nonchalant Americans were about corona — she and her husband have been careful in Potsdam and wear masks any time they meet with someone indoors.
“Here in Montana I think the people around me had to adjust their behaviour to accommodate me, but most of my friends have respected that I won't hug them or take my mask off in their house, or meet them to eat in a restaurant,” she said. “I was surprised at how quick and easy it was to get the vaccine.”