VACCINE TOURISM: Rich Iraqis head out of country to jump COVID-19 vaccination queue

Recently Iraqis have been returning back to the country with certificates indicating that they have been vaccinated.

By Haider Najim

“Passengers arriving on flights from the Gulf show that they have vaccination certificates issued by other countries, stating they have received the COVID-19 vaccine,” a health working at Baghdad airport explained – he wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to comment on the matter and feared being punished by his employers. “They show us because this means they don’t have to do any tests for the virus, or go into compulsory quarantine.”

“Many well-known politicians, current and former ministers and officials, along with family members, some of whom have diplomatic passports, were among these people,” the official continued. “There have also been businessmen – rich merchants who have the UAE as their place of business – singers, fashion models and social medial influencers coming through and they’ve all been able to present vaccination certificates.”

This practice has been described as “vaccine tourism” and Iraq is not the only country where elites have traveled to countries with better vaccination procedures – such as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where over half of the population has been vaccinated already – in order to access the COVID-19 jab.

The Iraqi government slow progress in this area has seen some Iraqi families spend thousands and take the risk of traveling in order to jump the vaccination queue.

There are many rumors about how to get vaccinated in Dubai and engage in so-called “vaccine tourism”. But the bottom line is, you either need to know somebody who can organize an injection behind the scenes or you need to be a resident of Dubai.

This is how many Iraqi businesspeople are getting vaccinated.

Ministry of Health spokesperson: It’s up to them if they want to do that although we don’t encourage anybody to travel or vaccinate outside the country.

An Iraqi auto parts dealer told the health official at the airport that he and his family of three traveled to Dubai for several weeks. It cost him several thousand dollars to get there and for accommodation but the vaccine was eventually given to him and his family for free.

Some of the Iraqi business people traveling to Dubai are residents and others are frequent travelers there. All have the right connections to organize a vaccination.

The Gulf Arab nations have been vaccinating their citizens for some months now. In Iraq, the vaccination campaign only just started, after the country received donations of vaccines from China.

There is a long wait for a vaccination in Iraq. Health workers are supposed to be first to get vaccinated and there is also fear about the side effects of vaccines in Iraq. The people here have little trust in their government, even though authorities keep promising that vaccines are coming and that they are safe.

This is despite the fact that Iraq is quite likely one of the countries with the highest daily rate of infections in the region. There are a lot of unreported infections and deaths. The real numbers are thought to be a lot higher than those that Iraqi authorities report.

“The delay of the vaccination campaign in Iraq is due to delays in vaccine deliveries,” a media spokesperson for the medical team at the Ministry of Health, Ruba Falah Hassan, explained. “And that was a contractual matter to do with the suppliers and their own priorities. The Iraqi Ministry of Health doesn’t have anything to do with those locals who have been vaccinated elsewhere,” she added. “It’s up to them if they want to do that although we don’t encourage anybody to travel or vaccinate outside the country,” Hassan noted.

The Iraqi government says it has agreed to purchase vaccines from various sources – including from the US, the UK, China and Russia – but they cannot help if there are delays at the point of manufacture.

The situation does not appear to be getting any better either and it’s quite possible that so-called “vaccine tourism” out of Iraq will continue. For example, Egypt and Turkey are making an effort to become regional hubs for the production and distribution of vaccines and one can imagine that those Iraqis who can afford it, will travel eagerly to those places for a protective jab sometime in the future, if they are allowed.

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