CHICAGO, Illinois — Refugees are especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic due to insufficient healthcare access and a lack of prioritization. Despite COVID-19 vaccinations being rolled out worldwide, very few countries are prioritizing refugees in vaccine phases. With over 26 million refugees in the world, these populations will need to be protected for countries to achieve herd immunity and slow the virus’ spread. Thankfully, the effort to ensure refugee vaccinations shows promise due to leadership from select countries.
Jordan has confirmed over 640,000 cases of COVID-19 since its first case was reported in January 2020. The country has also seen more than 7,000 deaths as of April 2021 as well as a steep climb in COVID-19 infections since September 2020. This was following months of successful containment of the virus. To curb the new rampant spread, Jordan’s COVID-19 plan implemented at the start of 2021 set forth auspicious strategies. The most promising aspect came in its decision regarding refugees. Jordan made headlines for becoming the first country in the world to begin vaccinating refugees against COVID-19. The United Nations Refugee Agency reported that Jordan started vaccinating refugees at local health clinics as earlier as the week of January 10, 2021. As Jordan has the highest concentration of refugees globally, its decision to vaccinate this population will speed up the country’s timeline of protection against the virus.
With over 700,000 refugees residing in the country, those living in Jordan’s Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps are at increased risk of infection without proper protection. One month after Jordan began vaccinating refugees, the country took further action to combat the virus among the most vulnerable. Jordan set another first by creating a vaccination center within one of the largest refugee camps in the country. The Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, with over 80,000 residents, had 2,000 people registered with Jordan’s Department of Health to receive the vaccine at the center’s opening. Overall, vaccinations have reached over 400,000 people since the rollout began in January 2021.
With a population of 6.8 million people, the estimated 1.5 million refugees residing in Lebanon are vital to vaccinate to contain the spread of COVID-19. As such, Lebanon announced in February of 2021 that it would include refugees in vaccine plans for the country. By February 13, the country had received its first 28,500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Brussels. That same day, Minister of Public Health Hamad Hassan announced that anyone residing on Lebanese soil would be eligible for the vaccine. So far, over 500,000 people have registered to receive the vaccine in Lebanon. Out of the 500,000, over 11,000 registrations are from Syrian and Palestinian refugees, two of the country’s largest asylum groups.
Germany is home to the highest population of refugees in Europe, with over 1.1 million residing in the country. In December of 2020, Germany officially designated asylum seekers as eligible for the vaccine, starting in the second round of qualifying groups. Vaccination of refugees and asylum seekers is essential, as a COVID-19 outbreak hit a Cologne refugee camp in February 2021. Nearly one-third of inhabitants were infected, showing how fast transmission can occur in limited spaces.
Katharina Lumpp, the U.N. Refugee Agency in Berlin’s spokesperson, appreciates Germany’s national vaccination plan now including refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, the U.N. agency welcomes the high prioritization of refugees, asylum-seekers and workers in the collective shelters. “This is an important step towards mitigating risks of a spread of the virus in places where social distancing and quarantine measures are more difficult to implement.”
The United Kingdom hosts over 133,000 refugees, low compared to other European countries. Unlike Jordan, Lebanon and Germany, the United Kingdom has not made refugees or migrants a specific priority for vaccine rollout. However, the country set an important precedent for other refugee host countries. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service announced on February 8, 2021, that recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine would not be asked to prove identity or residency status to be vaccinated. As of April 2021, the U.K. has seen over 4.3 million cases of COVID-19 and 126,000 deaths. With such high numbers, the vaccination rollout must prioritize those most vulnerable to infection, which includes refugees. By allowing anyone to receive the vaccine regardless of citizenship, the U.K.’s new process will save lives.
Protecting the Most Vulnerable
These countries set a crucial precedent of vaccinating refugees and asylum seekers and prioritizing them in vaccine rollout plans. While over 26 million people live as refugees, only around half of the countries worldwide include refugees in rollout plans. This leaves large populations of people at risk of contracting the virus, preventing host countries from overcoming the virus. With Jordan setting up vaccination clinics in refugee camps and the United Kingdom preventing vaccine access discrimination based on citizenship, a safe and healthy future for all inhabitants will be attainable. The rest of the world will need to start vaccinating refugees to reach herd immunity and health equality for all. By working together to protect everyone, there will be an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
– June Noyes