Alarm at Colombia plan to exclude migrants from coronavirus vaccine

President Iván Duque says undocumented Venezuelans will be denied access in a move denounced as unethical and impractical

Colombia will refuse to administer coronavirus vaccines to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees within its borders, President Iván Duque has announced, in a move which stunned public health experts and prompted condemnation from humanitarian groups.

Speaking to a local radio station on Monday, Duque that only Venezuelans with dual nationality or formal migratory status will have access to the vaccine when it is eventually distributed in the country.

According to migration authorities, Colombia currently houses 1.7 million Venezuelans who have fled political repression, economic ruin and widespread food and medicine shortages. Only about 45% have formal status, and hundreds more cross the border unofficially every day.

Duque said the controversial decision was taken to prioritize Colombians, and to prevent a rush on the border. “Imagine what we would live through,” he told Blu Radio on Monday morning. “We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”

But the comments prompted an immediate backlash.

“Now is the time to show solidarity; vaccinating migrants and refugees costs less than their hospitalization in an intensive care unit,” said Juan Viloria, a Venezuelan doctor in Colombia and the coordinator of Coalition for Venezuela, a migrant rights group.

“Not doing so puts thousands at risk, particularly those most vulnerable who do not have anywhere to isolate, wash their hands, or socially distance,” Viloria added.

Meanwhile, Colombia faces a resurgent coronavirus outbreak, with cases climbing by over 10,000 a day following months of respite. Lockdowns and other restrictions over the Christmas period have been put in place by local mayors.

“Not vaccinating Venezuelans is a bad idea from an epidemiological point of view,” tweeted Alejandro Gaviria, a public intellectual and the dean of Los Andes University in Bogotá.

“But it is above all an unethical proposal: it excludes the most vulnerable and discriminates in an almost threatening way against a group of people because of their nationality and immigration status.”

Colombia signed deals with the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca last Friday to provide 20m doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Duque said at the time that rollout would begin “in the first weeks of 2021”.

Andrés Cubillos-Novella, a professor of public health specializing in migration at the Javeriana University in Bogotá, warned that not vaccinating migrants and refugees would create broader problems for Colombia’s health response.

“Many vulnerable migrants live among vulnerable Colombians, and much of that population will be put at risk: access to the vaccine is a question of human rights,” Cubillos-Novella said, adding that the government’s decision may have been made due to financial restraints. “Perhaps that is where international aid could step in.”

The Colombian president’s announcement also flies in the face of advice from international organisations which have warned against leaving migrants and refugees behind in vaccination campaigns.

“This decision is not ethical or effective,” said Marianne Menjivar, Colombia director for the International Rescue Committee. “We can’t beat Covid anywhere until we beat it everywhere, among all populations, especially those most vulnerable.”

Contributor

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘If I go back, I’ll die’: Colombian town scrambles to accommodate 10,000 migrants
Necoclí, population 20,000, faces bottleneck as Covid rules lift and unrest, poverty and violence grow across region

Joe Parkin Daniels in Necoclí

08, Aug, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Colombia and Brazil clamp down on borders as Venezuela crisis spurs exodus
Venezuela’s neighbors plan to dispatch more security personnel while Brazil prepares to relocate thousands of refugees to country’s interior

John Otis in Cúcuta Emma Graham-Harrison and Carmen Fishwick

09, Feb, 2018 @4:52 PM

Article image
Lockdowns leave poor Latin Americans with impossible choice: stay home or feed families
Families struggle to maintain coronavirus restrictions as they seek to stay afloat: ‘My fear is my children going hungry’

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro, Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires, Cindy Jiménez Becerra in La Paz, Lexi Parra in Caracas, Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá, and David Agren in Mexico City

21, Apr, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
'In the middle of a war zone': thousands flee as Venezuela troops and Colombia rebels clash
Nearly 5,000 refugees holed up in small Colombian town of Arauquita, having fled intense and continuing battles

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

31, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
'The heart of darkness': neighbors shun Brazil over Covid response
Latin American countries scramble to protect themselves from a country where nearly 60,000 people are expected to die in March alone

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires and Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

30, Mar, 2021 @1:08 PM

Article image
‘A world problem’: immigrant families hit by Covid jab gap
Families spread across rich and poor countries are acutely aware of relatives’ lack of access to vaccine

Lizzy Davies and Simon Speakman Cordall

08, Jul, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘Everything is collapsing’: Colombia battles third Covid wave amid unrest
Protest leaders have agreed to pause mass marches as hospital ICUs struggle to cope with surging coronavirus cases

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

22, Jun, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Colombia to grant legal status to Venezuelan migrants
Move to grant protection status for 10 years described as ‘the most important humanitarian gesture’ in the region since the 1980s

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

11, Feb, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Venezuelans return home as coronavirus piles more misery on migrants
With many South American countries under lockdown of some sort, exiles are taking to the road – but still only a fraction of the 4.5m who left Venezuela

Joe Parkin Daniels in Briceño, Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro and Emily Costa in Boa Vista

12, Apr, 2020 @9:15 AM

Article image
Killing of two boys for alleged shoplifting shocks Colombia
Pair were taken away by armed men on motorbikes and later found shot dead on edge of town

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

13, Oct, 2021 @12:30 PM