No one left behind: Why refugees need an equal shot in the vaccine rollout

·3-min read
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Gugu Mbatha-Raw on a visit to Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda (UNHCR)
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Gugu Mbatha-Raw on a visit to Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda (UNHCR)
South Sudanese refugee families queue at one of the World Food Programme’s hot meals points on February 24, 2017 in Kuluba, Uganda. (Getty Images)
South Sudanese refugee families queue at one of the World Food Programme’s hot meals points on February 24, 2017 in Kuluba, Uganda. (Getty Images)

Why is vaccine equity so important?

In my role as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, I visited Burundian, South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda and Rwanda before the pandemic, and I saw for myself the challenges refugees faced. The vaccine is so important because the current situation of inequity is only helping the pandemic to drag on. Covid-19 knows no borders and cannot be beaten one country at a time. Vaccines must be equally available to all states if we want to increase population immunity on a global scale. This is the only way to minimise deaths and severe disease, and to avoid future variants that could cause further health, social and economic damage.

UNHCR data from the beginning of October shows that 71 per cent of all vaccine doses have been administered in just ten countries. Only a quarter of all vaccines have been administered in low- and middle-income countries – which host the vast majority of refugees.

If we don’t close this divide between the vaccinated and the exposed, the consequences could be devastating for all.

A refugee completes work on a mud thatched hut on February 26, 2017 in the Adjumani Settlement, Uganda. (Getty Images)
A refugee completes work on a mud thatched hut on February 26, 2017 in the Adjumani Settlement, Uganda. (Getty Images)

How have refugee communities been impacted by Covid-19 ?

Covid-19 is threatening refugees’ lives and livelihoods on different levels. In many countries, it has profoundly affected the fundamental principles of refugee protection and solidarity. Movement restrictions and pandemic shutdowns are also hitting groups like refugees the hardest. As well as illness, refugees also contend with loss of income, rising unemployment and lower amounts of money coming to them from family members, as well as school closures, pressure to pay rent and restricted access to basic services. The pandemic has also heightened the vulnerabilities of people with specific needs, including women and girls, the elderly and refugees with disabilities.

Safe and effective vaccines can relieve many of these pressures, as they can help the world move out of lockdowns and quarantines and get the virus under control.

South Sudanese refugees push their belongings up a hill after crossing into Uganda (Getty Images)
South Sudanese refugees push their belongings up a hill after crossing into Uganda (Getty Images)

What can be done and who should act?

Since the start of the pandemic, UNHCR has been calling on the international community to do more to ensure vaccine equity among states. Together we have been calling on all countries to include refugees in their national vaccination plans and roll-out on an equal footing as their citizens.

International solidarity and support, through humanitarian and development aid is crucial to prevent communities from falling into further fragility due to Covid-19.

South Sudanese refugee families queue at one of the World Food Programme’s hot meals points in Kuluba, Uganda. (Getty Images)
South Sudanese refugee families queue at one of the World Food Programme’s hot meals points in Kuluba, Uganda. (Getty Images)

What are the challenges of vaccination in a refugee setting?

Until now, it has been very encouraging to see the overwhelming response of many countries in including refugees in their vaccine roll-out. However, several other barriers to refugees’ access to vaccines still remain.

For example, to register for or receive vaccinations, some states require identity documents which refugees often do not have. Others have set up online systems that can prevent people without access to the Internet, or who are not computer literate, from registering for vaccines. In several countries, vaccination sites are located far from where refugees live, which could deter them from seeking immunisation.

So, stronger efforts are needed to ensure that all countries’ assurances for refugee inclusion turn into tangible reality.

A healthcare professional is vaccinated against COVID-19 on March 10, 2021 in Kampala, Uganda (Getty Images)
A healthcare professional is vaccinated against COVID-19 on March 10, 2021 in Kampala, Uganda (Getty Images)

What could a fair Covid-19 vaccine strategy mean for the future?

Covid-19 is, unfortunately, only one of the major threats to refugees’ health and well-being. Malaria for example, remained the single most common cause of illness among refugees during the first year of the pandemic. The fight against acute malnutrition, as well as the continuity of mental health, maternal and neonatal health services also require special efforts. Overall, a much larger investment is needed to ensure that refugees – just like everyone else – can enjoy the right to the highest attainable physical and mental health.

That said, a successful Covid-19 vaccine strategy would be a cause for optimism. It could bring hope, not only that we can triumph over the virus, but that we can put egoistic politics behind us and forge together, in solidarity to create global responses to global threats.

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