Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue.

Their comments came after the head of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Mark Machin, stepped down after admitting to travelling to Dubai to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The reputational damage — the lasting scar of you being caught, outed and tarred and feathered in the public square over your decision to engage in vaccine tourism — will linger,” said Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner of Provident Communications.

He said it will likely be some time until Machin, once a highly respected money manager, lands a new gig, as most companies will be loath to have their names associated with his.

“You have to think about what kind of organization would take on a leader with this in their background,” Dabrowski said.

Decisions to travel abroad for COVID-19 vaccines also raise questions about the culture a person expects to cultivate in their company, he added.

“As the CEO, the buck stops with you every time,” Dabrowski said. “Whether that’s on business performance, whether that’s on culture, or whether that’s on modelling the behaviour that you want to see elsewhere in the organization.”

In this case, he said, the Canada Pension Plan itself is likely to come out unscathed, in part because Machin left his post so quickly.

But if the company is not so well-known or highly regarded to begin with, and doesn’t act swiftly to rectify the situation, the executive’s actions could have broader implications, he said.

Some regions have also clamped down on vaccine tourism, not wanting to be associated with the practice.

In January, the Florida government changed its vaccination rules to prevent non-residents from flying in, getting jabbed and flying back out. The state now requires would-be vaccine recipients to provide proof of at least part-time residency.

And while Dabrowski noted that executivrs may find it desirable — though unadvisable — to combine vaccination with a vacation, that’s not always how things play out.

In late January, the head of the Great Canadian Gaming Corp. and his wife were ticketed after allegedly flying to a remote Yukon community to get vaccinated.

Dabrowski said the consequences of travelling to hop the vaccine line are perhaps even greater now, in a time when many people believe corporations should consider more than just profits.

“This whole idea that a corporation has this broader social imperative that’s not just focused around making money, but rather, improving and bettering and serving the communities in which these companies operate, is emerging as a very pressing imperative for a lot of organizations,” he said.

And there’s little question about whether vaccine tourism betters the community, he added.

Bioethicist Kerry Bowman said he was shocked to learn that a prominent figure would travel abroad to get a COVID-19 vaccine, especially after the furor that erupted in late December and early January over jet-setting politicians defying public health advice to avoid international travel.

“You’re really jumping the vaccine queue,” he said. “We’ve got elderly people in this country, and particularly the province of Ontario, that have still not even received a preliminary dose.”

Vaccine tourism also erodes trust in a health-care system that should ideally, treat everybody equally, Bowman said.

“It feeds into what a lot of people already know: That people with privileges and connections are going to find a way through the system.”

The phenomenon differs, Bowman said, from other forms of medical tourism in which people cross the border to pay for quicker access to treatment.

“If you’re going abroad for surgery, the secondary effect on other people from a point of view of justice is very different,” he said, noting that the pandemic makes everything more complicated.

“If a person is coming back from overseas, even if they’ve been vaccinated, the vaccine is really not coming up to strength for a few weeks,” he said. “So you’ve also got a potential health risk that’s being introduced.”

Bowman said the costs of vaccine tourism far outweigh any benefits.

“Critics will say vaccine tourism is just taking pressure off the system, and it’s no big deal,” Bowman said. “But, you know, fairness is very, very important.”

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