Maverick Citizen


To deny migrants Covid vaccines would be our own version of vaccine nationalism, warns minister’s special adviser

Refugees from various African nations living on a city sidewalk in Cape Town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA)

‘Therefore, in our context, including migrants in a vaccination roll-out plan is legally and scientifically sound, but it is also morally the right thing to do.’

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s vaccine roll-out plan on 1 February, he explicitly stated that migrants would not be excluded from receiving the vaccine. 

We will be putting in place measures to deal with the challenge of undocumented migrants so that, as with all other people, we can properly record and track their vaccination history,” said Ramaphosa. However, migrant activists are sounding the alarm that this may not in fact be the case.

Section 9 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on any grounds and it is the duty of the government to protect all those living in the country including migrants, said Zane Dangor, special adviser to the minister of international relations and cooperation, at a webinar.

“What many of us refer to as xenophobia is prohibited in the international legal texts that prohibit racism,” which have been ratified by South Africa, said Dangor.

“The prevailing science suggests that leaving out large sections of any population from being vaccinated limits countries’ and the globe’s ability to break the chain of transmission in a manner for what is termed as ‘global population immunity’. 

“Therefore, in our context, including migrants in a vaccination roll-out plan is legally and scientifically sound, but it is also morally the right thing to do.” 

Dangor said that for South Africa to deny migrants vaccines would be our own version of vaccine nationalism.

He said the reason the vaccines were developed so quickly was because people in rich countries – and not just poor and developing countries – were profoundly affected by the pandemic.

The differentiated roll-out of vaccines across the world, with rich countries having more access to vaccines while poor countries struggle, has the potential to create turmoil and fan the flames of political instability, said Dangor.

It was important, he said, to win the battle for the temporary Trips (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver which would enable countries to be able to scale-up manufacturing and therefore accessibility of the vaccine for everyone equally, which would bolster the response to the pandemic.

Countries arguing against the Trips waiver “are actually breaching the right to life”, because access to vaccines is a human rights issue and the right to intellectual property should not outweigh the right to life, stressed Dangor.

Speaking at the webinar, Associate Professor with the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, Jo Vearey, drew attention to the fact that there were already pre-existing migrant problems such as racism, nationalism and xenophobia before Covid-19.

She said migrants experienced problems when trying to get documentation validating their status in South Africa, which was further exacerbated by the closure of Home Affairs offices during the lockdown.

Vearey said it was important to understand that migration was not just cross-border, but included people moving between provinces, and this was likely to affect the vaccine roll-out. For example, if a person got their first dose in one province then moved to another before the second dose, what measures would be in place to ensure that they would still get the second dose? The same would need to be considered for cross-border movement or migration.

Vearey said the pre-existing systemic issues of inequitable access to health had now been amplified. There is a backlog of migrants and asylum seekers who still do not have the legal documentation needed to receive public services.

She said migrants often experienced bad treatment when trying to access public services because of not having the necessary documentation, and warned that this might make them afraid to come forward and receive vaccinations. This would result in a vaccine hesitancy driven by being afraid of the treatment likely to be incurred at the hands of the state, rather than by fear of the vaccine. DM/MC


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