BANGKOK – Some of President Joe Biden’s and his predecessor Donald Trump’s most active boosters in Southeast Asia have joined forces, demanding the US State Department vaccinate all American expats in Thailand as a model for international distribution, instead of discriminating against them.
“Biden has publicly announced that all Americans now have access to vaccines, but the government and State seem to have forgotten about us Americans living abroad,” said the chair of Democrats Abroad in Thailand, Paul Risley.
“What are we, chopped liver?
“These are vaccines, offered for free to all in the US, and most of them have been manufactured with taxpayer dollars.”
Some worried American expats plan “to fly back to the US, costly and risky travel that might bring variants back to the US,” Risley said.
Americans arriving from Bangkok may have to stay in the US for at least a month, to get two shots of an approved vaccine.
“Some Americans may simply be too old to make the long flights, and journey, back to the US,” he said.
In addition to air tickets and other travel expenses, freshly vaccinated Americans would “then have to pay for mandatory two-week hotel quarantine” back in Thailand.
“We have not historically provided private healthcare for Americans living overseas, so that remains our policy,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in May.
The State Department said in December, “If a US citizen wants to return to the United States, but does not have access to sufficient funds for the cost of the ticket, the Department of State is able to offer a loan to cover the cost of a flight home.”
A recent State Department’s official “Q & A” travel advisory, highlighted its own possible Catch-22:
“If airlines start requiring Covid-19 vaccination to travel – or the US government starts requiring vaccination or negative tests to enter the United States – will US citizens get stranded abroad? How will the State Department help them?”
The State Department answered itself, “We urge US citizens traveling, or resident abroad, to make their own arrangements regarding their medical care.”
Reuters reported on April 16 that the State Department said it had shipped vaccinations to 220 American embassies and consulates worldwide for their diplomats and other employees.
Democrats Abroad signed an unprecedented joint appeal with its arch-rival Republicans Overseas Thailand, plus the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12074, and the American Women’s Club of Thailand, addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 6.
They suggested Thailand as a pilot location, for global vaccination of Americans abroad.
“Fulfill the pledge made by President Biden to make coronavirus vaccines available to all Americans,” the letter said.
An estimated nine million private American citizens do not live in the US, including tens of thousands in Thailand.
Many pay US taxes, vote, and often visit their American hometowns.
“In this particular case, all of us are on board,” Tony Rodriguez, vice president of Republicans Overseas Asia, told US-government broadcaster Voice of America (VOA).
“Obviously, there’s plenty of vaccines in America. Just get them on a plane and fly them over,” Rodriguez said.
American expats are demanding US-made Pfizer and Moderna, seen as the best vaccines, be distributed to them via the American Embassy in Bangkok and Consulate in Chiang Mai, a northern city.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operates its biggest overseas facilities in Bangkok.
Some expats and Thais are also envious of China’s bold program to mass vaccinate Chinese citizens currently in Thailand and elsewhere – contrary to virtually every other foreign government’s inhospitable international Covid-19 treatment of its expats.
While Thailand’s total pandemic death toll neared 1,000 people, Bangkok told all expats to wait.
“The Health Ministry plans to vaccinate Thais first,” Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s Health Department director Panruedee Manomaipiboon announced on May 14.
About one million Thais and others have already received AstraZeneca jabs.
Bangkok-based Siam Bioscience is the local licensee for AstraZeneca production.
Concern about a lack of abundant vaccines was heightened when the Health Ministry said AstraZeneca’s required second shot would be given in Thailand 16 weeks after the first – instead of an earlier suggested 10 weeks.
The ministry said it would also squeeze a maximum 12 shots per vial instead of 10.
China’s Sinovac vaccine meanwhile is being distributed to the Thai public.
“I got the vaccine from Sinovac and visited many risk areas,” boasted gaffe-prone Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
“I am the person who is the most tested for the virus in the country. And the results show I am still safe.”
Beijing scored another diplomatic and financial success when a government-controlled corporation arranged to sell China’s second vaccine – Sinopharm – to the Chulabhorn Royal Foundation, which is sponsored by King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sister, Princess Chulabhorn.
Increasingly overwhelmed and politically vulnerable Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha came under fire however when some Thai analysts suggested the deal exposed the government’s seemingly hapless, helpless ability to quickly provide mass vaccinations.
“It is abundantly clear now that the Thai government last year placed the wrong bet in the beginning, by linking up the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca exclusively with the palace-backed Siam Bioscience for licensed manufacturing,” said Chulalongkorn University Political Science Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
“Such a lack of choice and availability has made Thailand more dependent on China,” Thitinan wrote in his May 28 column.
He welcomed the foundation’s direct payment for reportedly one million Sinopharm vaccines, relieving pressure on the government’s budget.
Those shots may be resold by the Foundation for under 1,000 baht (about $32) each, according to Thai media.
Some analysts suggested the foundation’s purchase could boost Prayuth, allowing him to continue in power without the horrors of much higher death tolls amid a mournful trickle of vaccines.
Thailand’s wretched, overcrowded prisons meanwhile suffered a spread of infections to more than 18,000 inmates.
They included a pro-democracy leader, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who was released in May to await trial.
Risley meanwhile is campaigning hard. He told VOA’s Thai language broadcast, “Americans who live abroad need to be vaccinated, for the same reasons that Americans who live in the United States need to be vaccinated.
“It’s the only way to stop Covid-19.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” are available here.