Brussels, Belgium – One Saturday morning in late March, Milica Pralica and her roommate grabbed their passports and a bag of crisps and drove towards the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Republic of Serbia.
They were keen to accomplish an important task – enter Serbia, pull up their sleeves, and get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We heard that Serbia had an excess supply of vaccines and was also offering them to foreigners. We instantly decided to travel to Belgrade to get our jabs because the rollout of vaccines in Bosnia is very slow,” said Pralica, a 29-year-old human rights activist based in Banja Luka, Bosnia, who also holds Serbian citizenship.
She is one among the many vaccine tourists who flocked to Belgrade after Serbian authorities announced that they would be offering free vaccines to everyone – irrespective of whether they were citizens or residents of the country – between March 26 and 28.
While border crossings between Serbia and Bosnia are common, Franka Vican, the spokesperson of the Border Police of BiH noted a sharp increase in the number of citizens crossing into the Republic of Serbia, after news about Serbia’s successful inoculation drive spread in the Balkan region.
“Between March 19 and March 31, we recorded 50,477 citizens of BiH exiting the country and driving towards the Republic of Serbia, compared to just 41,436 citizens the previous month. It is obvious that there is an increase in border crossings,” she told Al Jazeera.
Arriving at the vaccination centre in Belgrade, Pralica saw several military personnel monitoring long socially distanced queues of people from neighbouring Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Albania who had all gathered to get vaccinated.
“I felt like I was in some sort of war camp,” she said.
Getting the vaccine was straightforward. Pralica and her roommate had already registered on the government’s e-portal and after a quick verification of their personal details, both received their dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and returned home to Banja Luka, Bosnia, before dusk.
Why are people travelling for a vaccine?
Since vaccines to tackle the pandemic were discovered, their global rollout has been extremely slow and unequal.
Some countries have also begun monopolising the global inoculation drive by hoarding excess vaccines and making it harder for poorer nations to gain access.
In Europe, less than 10 percent of the region’s total population has had access to a first dose.
This has prompted many people across the continent who are dual citizens or have multiple residencies to board planes, trains, buses and cars, and cross borders to get the jab faster than they would where they live.
“I don’t see myself getting the vaccine anytime before the summer in Belgium and have decided to travel home to Saudi Arabia in July to get my shot,” said Monzer Alaily, 29, a law student at the University of Ghent.
Only 5 percent of Belgium’s population has been fully vaccinated so far, with the country prioritising the elderly and high-risk patients.
For Alaily, who has not seen his family for a year, getting the vaccine in Saudi Arabia was a quicker option, since the kingdom allows every citizen and resident, irrespective of their age and health status, to register.
“Once I land in the country, I need to make an appointment on the government’s vaccine portal called the Sehhaty app and submit my residency details. I will then be eligible to get my dose within a few days,” he said.
While tourism for medical reasons is nothing new, travelling for a COVID-19 vaccine poses ethical challenges.
“In Europe, for a person to literally drive to another country, get a vaccine and return home or to their place of residency, strikes me as unethical tourism,” said Glenn Cohen, a professor at Harvard Law School, who has specialised in health law policy, biotechnology and bioethics.
“It increases the risk of the spread of COVID-19 and you may be taking a vaccine from someone who is entitled to it under that country’s law. People are putting themselves and others at risk as vaccine tourists,” he said.
But for human rights activist Pralica, travelling to get the vaccine faster has enabled her to help vulnerable people in need, rather than expose them to further health risks.
“In Bosnia, we don’t have enough vaccine doses and, as an activist, I feel responsible to protest for the rights of my people. But it was important to protect myself first. Since I had the ability and money to cross the border and get the vaccine, I jumped at the opportunity, and can now continue my work safely and help refugees and underprivileged communities in Bosnia also get the vaccine.”
Tyler Thompson, 31, shares a similar view.
Thompson works as a psychotherapist in the Netherlands and helps front-line workers with their mental health issues.
But the uncertainty of the rollout in the European nation prompted him to fly back to his hometown in Texas, United States, to get vaccinated there, so that he could continue his work safely.
“In the US, I qualify as a front-line worker myself and was eligible to get the vaccine as soon as I landed. There is a sense of hopelessness in the Netherlands regarding the vaccine and rollout. Like someone my age will have to wait forever. So I decided to travel for one,” said Thompson.
Most European countries require people to show proof of residency, citizenship or share details about their national health insurance, to get vaccinated.
Professor Cohen believes these legal requirements may discourage vulnerable communities, such as undocumented migrants, from trying to get a jab.
“To tackle the pandemic, everybody should be eligible to get the vaccine in the region they live in,” he said.
Until every country across the globe receives enough doses, Prof Cohen suggests encouraging vaccine exports rather than vaccine tourism.
“Assuming a country has surplus vaccines after vaccinating locals and the vulnerable, it is better if that surplus is directed to countries that have the greatest need,” he said, “rather than inviting people in from outside to get the shot. Surplus doses should be prioritised for vulnerable countries. Not for the wealthy in less vulnerable places.”