JALISCO, Mexico - In late-December, Mexico began its coronavirus vaccination rollout, but many of the million or so American expats currently living in the country are planning to return home to get the inoculation.
Although the Mexican government plan intends to vaccinate the elderly immediately after essential healthcare workers, some U.S. expats in that age-range and beyond are confused as to whether they are eligible to receive the vaccine here.
Hillary Herbst, aged 69, and her 79-year-old husband George Hermelink are planning to return north of the border to be vaccinated. The two Americans live in the small lakeside town of Ajijic, considered one of the largest foreigner retiree communities in Mexico, and expressed concern about "what's going to be distributed here, and from who."
"I wouldn't touch anything Russian if my life depended on it. Why would I want to give [Putin] a dime," exclaimed Herbst.
"Are you sure? You drink vodka," joked her husband.
Mexico intends to use a cross-section of vaccines sourced from China, Russia, the European Union and the United States.
Hillary and George have lived in Mexico for over five years, and hold the most comprehensive visa available for foreigners: permanent residency. Yet they're unsure when they may be able to be vaccinated.
"We haven't heard anything about it, nor has anybody said to us, Ok, come on, you're a permanent resident, it's your time to line up," said Herbst.
She admitted that the flights and costs of heading to the U.S would be expensive, but "it would be great if the Mexicans were immunized first."
Mexico is one of the countries most hard hit by COVID-19, ending 2020 with the fourth most deaths globally at over 125,000 fatalities. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has claimed that the vaccine will be universal and free, but the more than million Americans living here remain confused as to whether that includes them. Mexico is home to the biggest groups of Americans abroad in the world.
Tara Buss, a 34-year-old with health issues, is also planning to return to the U.S. because "the Mexican government has not released any plans for people with pre-existing conditions" and thinks she "would be in the last group to be actually vaccinated here."
Although she is in Mexico City with the necessary legal papers, and it appears that she should qualify for vaccination in Mexico, she and her 33-year-old Mexican husband are hoping to go to the U.S. They are considering trying to establish U.S. residency in the next few months, because her husband is a cancer survivor, and they are concerned about him being last on the list as well for vaccination. "The likelihood of him being vaccinated in the next six months (in Mexico) is infinitesimal," she said.
But she emphasized that she was aware that not everyone has that option, whether it's a lack of money or for family and work commitments that don't allow them to leave Mexico.
"The reality is, it's kind of an incredible statement of privilege to say I'm going to fly from one country to another to get a vaccine," said Buss. "But that is what we're planning on doing. And I'd like to think, at least that's one or two more vaccines that can be used here for people who don't have that privilege."
López Obrador's government plans to vaccinate the elderly first, then move through various age ranges with the aim to have the entire population above the age of 40 covered by June. From there, everyone under 40 falls into the final group which the government said may take until March 2022 to fully vaccinate. The president, who is 67, claimed he'll wait to get inoculated until his own age group does. He has also expressed a willingness to vaccinate undocumented migrants living in the United States who may not be able to receive it because of their lack of legal papers.
In Mexico, there's also a massive population of gringos living in the country under dubious legal status in which they exploit six-month tourist visas, leave the country prior to its expiration date, then quickly re-enter on a new tourist visa.
Page, who asked to go by her middle name because of her lack of legal status in Mexico, is taking "a wait and see approach, as far as learning more about what's available, where I can get it the quickest.”
"I'm not sure if there will be restrictions on things like that, I really don't know what the rules of the rollout are in Mexico," said Page. "I have gotten a flu vaccine here before, but this is obviously kind of a different ballgame with so many people wanting to get it and the supply being limited and all that."
She explained that, in her opinion, the most pressing issue is that people around the world get vaccinated as quickly as possible without worrying about nationalities.
"This is such a global health crisis, and the more people that get vaccinated, the better off we are. I think by the time you're getting to people who are younger and healthier wherever you are, I don't know that I see it as a problem," she said. "Like if people were skipping their place in line, I certainly don't want that. But I just kind of think people should be able to get it wherever they are from a public health standpoint."
For Edgar López, a 58-year-old bi-national Mexican and U.S. citizen living in Mexico City, he's debated what is best but ultimately has decided to wait for the vaccine in Mexico, mostly due to the fact that his family isn't U.S. citizens and he's concerned that he could contract the virus while flying to the United States.
"It seems much more dangerous for me to go out and travel than to just wait, as we have waited all of this year without getting infected," said López. "So I might just wait for the vaccine in Mexico."
Still, he expressed doubts about the types of vaccines that will be administered in Mexico, especially the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine that is expected to be fast tracked and widely used around the country.
"Frankly, I would not want to get the Russian vaccine, because what I read about the development of the vaccine didn't assuage my fears," said López, before prefacing that regardless of where it comes from, it was still everyone's "responsibility to get vaccinated as soon as possible."