International students witness vaccine disparity first hand

For international students, the disparity between vaccines available for students in the United States versus abroad caused mixed feelings. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Once every few days, Francesca Jacke, who currently lives in Germany, opens her email to USC Student Health reminding her to schedule a vaccine appointment at the Lyon Center.

But Jacke, almost 6,000 miles away from Los Angeles, does not have that option. Despite her designation as a priority group because of asthma and Germany’s slower vaccination rollout, Jacke is hoping to get vaccinated by September. 

“It definitely feels like you just pulled the short straw when it came to your citizenship,” said Jacke, a a senior majoring in theatre and health and the human sciences. “It just feels like I’m unlucky.”

In L.A., all residents over the age of 16 have been eligible for the vaccine for weeks, and coronavirus cases are declining. But in many places across the world, the coronavirus situation has varied. 

International students at USC see both sides of this disparity — some receiving vaccinations in the United States even as more vulnerable family back home cannot, and others experiencing lockdowns and large outbreaks at home while friends at USC post vaccine cards on Instagram and look forward to relatively normal summers.

While Germany’s vaccination rate has been slower compared to the U.S., Jacke knows that other countries are in even worse situations. Her mom is currently living in South Africa, where Jacke grew up, and only 0.5% of the population have received vaccinations. Getting vaccinated this year, or ever, is not even an expectation for Jacke’s mom, she said. 

“It’s a very scary thought that she’s just not protected simply because of where she is in the world,” Jacke said. “It’s more just like this existential fear that I think a lot of people are having during this pandemic, where it kind of feels like it should be time for all of us to move on and get vaccinated and get back to a new normal, but some people get to have that more than others.”

Gigi Brito, a junior from Brazil, is a student worker at the University currently living in L.A. who recieved her vacination in March. The process was quick and simple, she said. But as she felt the relief of safety, back at home in Brazil, Brito said, her grandparents had not yet been vaccinated, and her parents still have no idea when they will be eligible to get the shot. 

“It’s definitely a very weird experience, because, obviously, I wish my parents could get vaccinated before I did, and I actually got vaccinated before my grandparents,” said Brito who’s majoring in architecture. “I wish I could just bring them here for them to be vaccinated, but I am American, and my entire family isn’t, so they don’t really have a choice.”

India is currently experiencing the worst outbreak in the world, with hospitals running out of oxygen, cities on lockdown and thousands dying a day amid accusations of the government undercounting deaths. For weeks, public pressure mounted on President Joe Biden’s administration for the U.S., a country with more than enough doses to vaccinate the entire population, to export raw materials and extra vaccines to India. 

As of April 25, the Biden administration finally agreed to share vaccines, exporting up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — which has not yet been used in the U.S. — to other countries. 

Kasvi Malhotra, a junior majoring in economics and communication, is back home in India, where she is experiencing the outbreak firsthand. Many people she knows have gotten sick, she said, and some have passed away.

“It’s like every second person I know. Half my friends, half my extended family is sick, multiple members in my extended family have died,” Malhotra said. “This variant is so, so dangerous … I’m obviously really scared of falling sick because I’ve heard so many different reports of people my age — like 20 years old — dying.”

While only 8.8% of the Indian population have received a dose of the vaccine, compared to 42% of Americans, Malhotra’s parents have been vaccinated, and she hopes that she can get a dose sometime in May. 

As a way to stop the overwhelming surges in other countries, many are now pressuring the Biden administration to waive patents on the coronavirus vaccines as a way to broaden access. So far, the administration has resisted. 

Malhotra said that since the U.S. has more than enough doses to vaccinate its population and share vaccines with India, it should share its resources with other countries in need.

“[The U.S. is] sending us raw materials now. Why? Because there was so much pressure policywise on the U.S.,” Malhotra said. “It just looked so bad that they weren’t [sending materials]. I just think that the U.S. should be doing more.” 

Zuzanna Iwanejko, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, lives in Warsaw, Poland where neither she nor her parents have been able to get vaccinated. Someone like her, a healthy 20-year-old, will probably not get vaccinated until next year. 

Iwanejko expressed anxiety about the prospect of trying to return to USC next year without being vaccinated. 

“For the longest time, I thought I would just return in August to USC and get vaccinated there because I don’t think it’s going to be possible for me to get a vaccination in Poland this summer,” she said. “The fact that our government is not able to provide this for us is very inconvenient, especially because I don’t know if I can come back to the campus if I’m not vaccinated.”

At her State of the University address Monday, President Carol Folt announced that the University intended to require vaccines for the Fall 2021 semester. 

As USC students and their families across the country continue to get vaccinated and return to life that looks more normal, in many cases, international students face a much different reality. 

While Jacke watches her friends’ lives begin to return to normal in the U.S., she is still on lockdown in Germany, not allowed to see more than one person outside her household during the day or anyone after 9 p.m.

“When I see that people are hanging out in groups, maybe partying even, that definitely is very frustrating, because why shouldn’t I be?” Jacke said. 

Even as India currently struggles, Malhotra said that, overall, she thinks the country has done a good job in controlling the pandemic. While L.A. spent much of the winter in lockdown, India’s outbreak was under control, and Malhotra could live a relatively normal life.

“I don’t think I’m going to complain in that way,” Malhotra said. “I think that if you look at it from a distance, take last year into consideration and take death into consideration, I think the U.S. has made a much bigger mess of this than India has.”