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.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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