“Me first” attitude is devastating, say advocates about access of refugees and migrants to COVID-19 vaccines

(Photo: Kovop58, iStock)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

More than 80 million refugees and others forced from their homes by war, climate change and natural disasters need COVID-19 vaccines just as much as the rest of us, but Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny worries they’re easily overlooked.

“The issue of vaccines for migrants and refugees does not seem to interest public opinion much,” Czerny wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “During COVID, refugees and migrants have been in the shadows and out of sight.”

Czerny heads up the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development.

“Refugees and migrants should be getting access to the COVID-19 vaccine just like the rest of the population,” said Czerny.

Canada’s plan to withdraw 1.1 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine from the international COVAX plan, set up to ensure equal access to vaccines across the globe, is a worrying signal that rich nations are willing to put their own interests first, ignoring vulnerable populations in poor countries, said Caritas Internationalis secretary general Aloysius John.

“Are we talking about a pandemic or are we talking about business? Let us raise this question,” John said. “If you are really concerned about the pandemic, I think the global north cannot get out of this sickness by itself. They need the global south. There is interdependency.”

“The Canadian government and its people are displaying a ‘me first’ attitude,” said Jesuit Refugee Service country director for Canada Norbert Piché. “There is no solidarity, or very little, with poor nations. We look after ourselves first without considering the impact that our actions have on the developing nations.”

Canada contributed $440 million to COVAX in September last year. Half of that money is to secure doses for Canada from about nine different potential vaccines, should they be approved. This country is the sixth largest donor among nations towards the UNHCR’s COVID emergency appeal.

The 165 Caritas organizations around the world, including Canada’s Development and Peace, are concerned that refugees are easily overlooked in vaccination plans, said John.

“Migrants and refugees are people on the move. Most of the time they do not have papers and they are frightened of being caught in an administrative situation. They are not on the radar of the authorities. At the same time, they are also the major victims because of the health situation.”

On the ground, working with Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, the Catholic humanitarian organization Malteser International can confirm vaccinating refugees is going to be tricky.

The Colombian government at first announced it would not include undocumented migrants in its vaccine rollout, but now says it’s working on a plan for the more than 400,000 Venezuelans in the country without papers.

When they can find work in an atmosphere of rising xenophobia, the Venezuelan migrants work 12- to 14-hour days for a little more than $7 a day. They have little control over their work environments and almost no chance of protecting themselves from the rampant coronavirus, Malteser International’s Colombian co-ordinator of health services Maria-Bonita Amorim da Silva said. Crowded, unstable housing, often sharing a single room or house with other families, leaves people vulnerable.

“There is always the fear, anguish, worry and despair of not being able to return to their country, to get their well-deserved vaccination (in Venezuela),” said Amorim. “Fear is always latent. Especially if they are sick and must go to health centres, anxiety is accentuated.”

Of 133 countries working on vaccination strategies, 81 have finalized their plans and 54 have explicitly included refugees in their plans, according to the United Nations High Commissioner’s representative in Canada Rema Jamous Imseis. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people are stuck in the world’s poorest countries where national governments struggle to meet the health needs of their own populations.

“No one should be left out of public health responses if we want to break or sustainably slow the transmission of the virus,” said Imseis. “Ensuring that refugees are included in the vaccine rollout is key to ending the pandemic.”

There is a special responsibility for rich countries like Canada to step up and ensure global fairness, said Fr. Kevin White, the JRS’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

“Jesus reminds us that to whom much has been given, much will be required,” he wrote in an email. “How we care for the vulnerable is the basis of a life pleasing to God.”

“It would be sad if, in providing the vaccine, priority were given to the wealthiest, or if this vaccine became the property of this or that country and was no longer for everyone,” Pope Francis said in September. “It must be universal, for all.”