Refugees pushed to back of the line amid vaccine shortages

Aug 1, 2021, 9:07 PM | Updated: 9:56 pm
A young Rohingya refugee boy stands outside a tent at a refugee camp alongside the banks of the Yam...

A young Rohingya refugee boy stands outside a tent at a refugee camp alongside the banks of the Yamuna River in the southeastern borders of New Delhi, sprawling Indian capital, July 1, 2021. Millions of refugees living in crowded camps are waiting for their COVID-19 vaccines. For months, the World Health Organization urged countries to prioritize immunizing refugees, placing them in the second priority group for at-risk people, alongside those with serious health conditions. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Salimullah, a Rohingya refugee, has been living in the Indian capital of New Delhi since 2013 when he fled violence in Myanmar. Stateless, and now homeless after a fire razed his camp, the 35-year-old lives in a tent with as many as 10 other people at a time.

Before the pandemic, he ran a small business selling groceries from a shack. But that was closed during India’s harsh, months-long lockdown, and his savings are gone. He and his family have been surviving on donated food, but he has to return to work soon, despite the risk of getting COVID-19 and infecting others.

Although some refugees in India have begun getting vaccines, no one in his camp has received shots. Just over 7% of India’s population is fully vaccinated and vaccine shortages have plagued the nation of almost 1.4 billion.

“The disease doesn’t discriminate. If we get infected, locals will also,” Salimullah said.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

For months the World Health Organization urged countries to prioritize immunizing refugees, placing them in the second priority group for at-risk people, alongside those with serious health conditions.

That’s because refugees inevitably live in crowded conditions where the virus can spread more easily, with little access to the most basic health care or even clean water, said Sajjad Malik director of the U.N. refugee agency’s division of resilience and solutions.

“They are really living in difficult situations,” he said.

Over 160 countries included refugees in their plans, but these have been upended by supply shortages. According to the WHO, some 85% of vaccines have been administered by rich countries. In contrast, 85% of the world’s 26 million refugees live in developing countries struggling to vaccinate even the most vulnerable, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Some countries, like Bangladesh, pinned their hopes on COVAX, the global initiative aimed at vaccine equity. In February, it altered its original vaccination plan to include nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in crowded camps on the country’s border with Myanmar. But so far, it’s received only 100,620 doses– less than 1% of its allocated shots — from COVAX, leaving Rohingya refugees without.

COVAX hasn’t only faltered in Bangladesh. Globally the initiative has delivered less than 8% of the 2 billion vaccine doses it had promised by the end this year.

Even in countries where refugee vaccination has started, supplies remain an issue. In Uganda’s Bidi Bidi camp less than 2% of the 200,000 refugees have received a single shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with second doses in short supply after India stopped exporting them after its own cases exploded.

Other obstacles ranging from language barriers to misinformation about vaccines are exacerbating the problem. Thomas Maliamungu, a South Sudanese refugee and teacher in Bidi Bidi, said he overcame his fears to get his first shot only after it was made mandatory for teachers.

“Based on the rumors on the ground, I never wanted it,” he said.

Some countries, like India, initially required documents like passports or other government identification, that many refugees lack to register for vaccines. Online registration was also a barrier for many without internet access.

India started vaccinating people in January. Four months later documentation requirements were eased. The Chin community in New Delhi, a Christian minority who fled the violence in Myanmar, started getting shots in June. By then, India’s monstrous surge had already ripped through their crowded settlement, with entire families falling sick and dying.

With the city’s health system collapsing, refugees struggled to get a hospital bed and private hospitals were charging around $4,000 for a few days, said James Fanai, president of the Chin Refugee Committee in Delhi. “Getting oxygen was almost impossible,” he said.

Registration initiatives, like volunteers going to camps to help refugees sign up for vaccines, have sometimes fallen flat, said Miriam Alía Prieto, the vaccination and outbreak response adviser for Doctors Without Borders.

“Many aren’t in camps but living with relatives,” she said, noting refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon.

Due to the transient nature of some refugee populations, some countries in Europe are gravitating towards using the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for refugees. Prieto said that Spain is waiting for these vaccines to arrive. Greece began a drive for those living in migrant camps and shelters in early June using Johnson & Johnson shots.

Refugees are getting shots in EU countries, but the situation is worse in other parts of the continent, said Frido Herinckx, COVID-19 Operations Manager at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s Regional Office for Europe. For example, only some 1.5% of people in Armenia and 4.2% in Ukraine are fully vaccinated.

In some countries, like Montenegro, the fear of arrest or deportation remains an obstacle and, he said, Red Cross volunteers are accompanying migrants, including refugees, to help them get shots while ensuring they weren’t arrested afterwards.

“So (it’s) keeping that firewall between … the border guards and the health service,” he said.

But even if vaccine supply increases there’s the issue of liability — the question of who’s responsible in rare cases of serious side effects from the vaccine.

Humanitarian organizations can apply to distribute vaccines under the humanitarian buffer — a contingency mechanism set up by COVAX as a last resort. But doing so also means accepting liability for any serious side effects.

Prieto said Doctors Without Borders wants to try to get vaccines from the manufacturers but doesn’t want to assume liability. Many vaccine makers have refused to ink deals for vaccines or ship them without that stipulation.

Another obstacle, she said, is that sometimes a vaccine greenlit by WHO is not yet authorized by the host country, creating a mismatch between what vaccines are available and what can be used.

“We’re in this weird phase where there’s a drug being approved, but no one wants to take liability,” she said.

As the virus continues to spread, the difficulties facing vaccinating refugee populations around the globe could spell disaster for host communities.

“The virus doesn’t distinguish between a national and a refugee. So, if you don’t protect and save your refugee population it becomes a public health issue,” Malik said.

___

Milko reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. AP journalists Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

This handout photo taken and provided by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan shows Sri Lanka's P...
Associated Press

Sri Lanka begins crucial debt restructuring talks with China

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president said Thursday his government has started debt restructuring discussions with China, an important step toward finalizing an International Monetary Fund rescue of the island nation from its worst economic crisis. President Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament on Thursday that the initial talks will continue after China’s Communist Party […]
47 minutes ago
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge stands in the dugout after his solo home run during the first inning ...
Associated Press

Fan who caught Aaron Judge’s 62nd HR offered $2M for ball

The owner of a sports memorabilia auction house says he has offered $2 million to the fan who caught Aaron Judge’s American League-record 62nd home run. JP Cohen, president of Memory Lane Inc. in Tustin, California, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he has texted and emailed Cory Youmans, the man who caught Judge’s […]
1 day ago
FILE - Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss makes a speech at the Conservative Party conference at th...
Associated Press

With division at home, UK’s Truss seeks to thaw EU relations

LONDON (AP) — After an acrimonious divorce and years of bickering, Britain’s government looks like it wants to make up with the European Union. The tax-cutting economic plans of the country’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has her feuding at home with financial markets, the opposition and chunks of her own Conservative Party. But abroad, […]
1 day ago
This undated photo provided by Merced County Sheriff's Office shows Jasleen Kaur, left, and Jasdeep...
Associated Press

‘Our worst fears’: Kidnapped baby, parents, uncle found dead

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A baby girl, her parents and uncle were found dead in a central California orchard two days after they were kidnapped at gunpoint from their business, police said. “Our worst fears have been confirmed,” Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said at a Wednesday night news conference. Warnke did not release any […]
1 day ago
A currency trader walks by the screen showing the foreign exchange rate between U.S. dollar and Sou...
Associated Press

Asian stocks mixed on strong US hiring, OPEC oil output cuts

BEIJING (AP) — Asian stocks were mixed Thursday after strong U.S. hiring dampened hopes the Federal Reserve might ease off plans for interest rate hikes and the OPEC group of oil exporters agreed to output cuts to shore up prices. Tokyo and Seoul advanced while Hong Kong and Sydney declined. Chinese markets were closed for […]
1 day ago
FILE - The exterior of Phoenix College, part of the Maricopa County Community College system, is se...
Associated Press

Arizona weighing in-state tuition rate for some non-citizens

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona voters this November will decide whether to allow students regardless of their immigration status to obtain financial aid and cheaper in-state tuition at state universities and community colleges. At least 18 states, including California and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia now offer in-state tuition to all students who […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
...
SCHWARTZ LASER EYE CENTER

Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Refugees pushed to back of the line amid vaccine shortages