Why global immunization efforts must include refugees
The COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect our loved ones, reunite our families, and bring us all closer together. But last year also showed that vaccines are not evenly distributed. The most vulnerable among us, including the forcibly displaced and stateless, especially women and girls, are too often overlooked or left behind. Every year, nearly 20 million children all over the world are deprived of the full cycle of essential vaccines, and while waiting for access to essential health services, vaccine-preventable diseases such as cholera, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus – and now COVID-19 – expect to rob them of their right to a healthy future.
We are both intimately aware of the devastating consequences of discrimination and exclusion. One of us, Gugu, is an actor and goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Both of my parents worked in the frontline health services, and my father, a doctor and activist, was helped by UNHCR when he fled apartheid South Africa. My mother, born in England, was a nurse and worked in health care throughout her career. The other of us, Anuradha, has always championed the rights of women, adolescents and children. I’m currently deputy managing director of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which helps immunize millions of children and adults every year in low-income countries, including places torn by war and violence. Together, we are driven by a shared passion to eliminate the deep inequalities that prevent millions of people from getting the primary health care and life-saving vaccines they need.
As COVID-19 vaccinations continue, economies rebound and social life begins to return to normal in wealthier countries, refugees and other displaced people – who mostly live in low- and middle-income countries – remain seriously under-protected against a disease with which they have the least resources to cope. As a result, governments and international health and humanitarian communities must ensure that everyone has equal access to vaccines. And we must all hold them accountable.
It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. We cannot slow the spread of COVID-19 until people in all parts of the world are vaccinated. This includes the 82.4 million forcibly displaced people in more than 100 countries, including 26.4 million refugees, according to UNHCR’s latest annual report. Global Trends Report released last month.
Of From Serbia to Nepal to Rwanda to Jordan, 91 out of 162 countries investigated by UNHCR started vaccinating refugees and asylum seekers against COVID-19. Now we urge all countries to follow their example. Where government vaccination campaigns cannot reach, or where further displacement can leave refugees and asylum seekers unprotected, COVAX is ready to work with its humanitarian partners, such as the UNHCR, to deliver vaccines through the COVAX humanitarian buffer, a vaccine supply reserved for populations in humanitarian situations, such as war zones.
In several countries hosting large numbers of refugees, many are afraid to use public services for fear of being deported. Others do not have the necessary identification documents to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Governments must assure people that they will not be punished for seeking to be vaccinated and to keep that promise. Removing the requirement to show ID when registering for or receiving COVID-19 vaccination would be an important step in expanding access, especially for women, who are more likely than men be without identification.
For many families, routine immunization is the only thing that gets them to a hospital or clinic during the first two years of their child’s life. But for refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced persons and stateless persons, their children’s right to immunization is not always respected. Almost 14 million children born each year do not receive a single vaccine. These “zero dose” children represent the most alarming societal inequalities – with no protection against preventable diseases, such as measles and polio.
Today, we have a real chance to close this vaccination gap. The lessons we learn from creating innovative and humane solutions and policies during the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to protect every child’s right to health and to create more effective immunization strategies in the future.
The pandemic has brought together partners from all sectors of society. We have seen tech giants, philanthropists, United Nations agencies and others working together to deliver billions of COVID-19 vaccines. We must cultivate and continue these partnerships. And we need governments to continue to do their part to make sure no one is left behind when it comes to COVID-19 and all other life-saving vaccines.
In June, we famous World Refugee Day by honoring the strength and courage of refugees around the world. In July and every month to come, we must keep our promise to them. Join us in calling on world leaders to continue the movement towards equity in immunization for the forcibly displaced, for women and girls, and for everyone. No one is safe until everyone is safe.
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