COVID-19 Vaccines for Displaced People in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is among the regions hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of July 29, of every 100 infections reported globally, 21 come from countries in the region. Although the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine brings great hope, vaccination rates are low in the region. Except for Chile and Uruguay, the percent of the population fully vaccinated remains below 20 percent in most countries in the region and below 10 percent in some. During this slow vaccine rollout, many governments in LAC are trying to provide vaccine access to vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants, and displaced people. It will be impossible for the region to stop COVID-19 infection rates unless countries include displaced people in vaccination drives. There are several steps that the international community can and should take to help.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on displaced people in Latin America and the Caribbean 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created both direct and indirect consequences for displaced people. Low-income migrants sometimes face a lack of access to health and social security systems, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Migrants living in camps or unsafe conditions often find it difficult to maintain social distancing, abide by lockdown rules, or access clean water for hand-washing, which is a key tool in combating COVID-19. People in immigration detention are also especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, as detention centers tend to be unsanitary and overcrowded.   

The pandemic also disproportionately affected displaced people in LAC due to factors including low rates of economic inclusion, limited access to social protection systems, lack of support networks, discrimination, legal exclusion, and lack of knowledge of administrative procedures. For displaced women, sexual and gender-based violence was further exacerbated in the context of lockdowns. Older displaced people experienced limited access to healthcare in LAC nations, as well as limited access to food during the pandemic. 

Are Latin American and Caribbean countries including displaced people in vaccination efforts? 

A growing number of countries have reported increased inclusion for refugees and migrants in national vaccine plans. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), five out of seven countries in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean are immunizing refugees and asylum seekers, in addition to five out of nine countries in South America. 

In Colombia, the government has provided vaccine access to recently regularized Venezuelan migrants. In Peru, authorities have opened the vaccination registry for migrants regardless of their status. In Uruguay, the Ministry of Health has announced that more than half of migrants over the age of 60 were vaccinated. In Trinidad and Tobago, the government has stated that migrants have access to vaccines available to all residents in the country.

In other LAC countries, however, it is unclear if displaced people are being vaccinated or considered in national vaccine allocation plans. In most of these cases, there are administrative barriers or a lack of information. Argentina, Mexico, Dominica, and Barbados request proof of regular stay or national identity cards. In Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico, vaccines websites do not report data disaggregated by demographics, as the World Health Organization recommends, so it is unknown if displaced people are getting the vaccine.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), a multilateral mechanism that aims to vaccinate up to twenty percent of a country’s population by the end of 2021, is a critical tool for vaccination in the region. Currently, 190 countries are part of this initiative, and in LAC, 14 are self-financing countries and 5 countries qualify as GAVI Advanced Market Countries (AMC), which allows lower-income countries to have access to vaccines. Cuba is not a participant. 

A way toward inclusion  

Ensuring access to immunization for all people regardless of nationality and migration status is imperative for countries to recover from COVID-19. The international community can support this in several ways. 

First, wealthy countries need to end vaccine nationalism and the act of hoarding doses by purchasing only what is necessary, sharing vaccine doses, and engaging in deals that support other countries.

Second, states must increase international cooperation. It is important to increase aid, including collaboration among developing countries (South-South cooperation) and among state and non-state actors including the private sector, international organizations, and civil society groups (Triangular cooperation). Also, it is essential to drive efforts toward more participation and financing in existing multilateral mechanisms, such as C-TAP, COVAX, and GAVI that guarantee access to vaccines regardless of economic status. 

Finally, states must establish national vaccine plans and efficient rollout for all displaced people. High-risk vulnerable populations should receive higher priority for the vaccine. States must also provide solutions to obstacles such as language barriers, costs, and legal and administrative barriers

Displaced people must be included in vaccination plans across Latin America and the Caribbean. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity to reduce inequities and include vulnerable populations, such as migrants and refugees, in accessing health systems.

BANNER PHOTO CAPTION: Bogota’s mayor health personnel vaccinates a Venezuelan migrant woman at an encampment where migrants are living during the coronavirus pandemic on June 12, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia. Photo Credit: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images.