Vaccine inequality is a scandal that must be urgently addressed, says UN refugee boss

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has attacked the “scandal” of vaccine inequality.
  • In an interview for the World Economic Forum he also urged rich nations not to cut aid.
  • Leaders need to remember that no one is safe until everyone is safe, he said.

To mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, the World Economic Forum spoke to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who had some strong words to say about the plight of the world’s displaced people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grandi attacked the “scandal” of vaccine inequality, which he said was hitting the poorest, and refugees in particular, hardest. And he urged governments not to cut aid budgets as they struggle to cope with massive pandemic borrowing.

In an exclusive interview, Grandi, who is a member of the Forum’s Humanitarian and Resilience Investing Initiative, also called on governments to help refugees get back into the labour market as the post-pandemic recovery gathers pace.

It’s World Refugee Day. Is there one thing, on a day like this, that you would hope people were aware of?

I think it is important to repeat … most of these 80-plus million people we’re talking about, refugees, displaced people, are in poor countries…[which have] fewer resources to deal with these massive problems. That’s one fundamental point that I’d like everybody to remember on this day.

This is a day that happens every year to raise awareness. This time, I suppose the big change is the pandemic. How has it affected refugees?

Well, first of all, it has affected refugees [in the same way] as everybody else, from the health point of view, many got sick. Unfortunately, many died but that was not fundamentally different from what happened to everybody else, especially amongst the most vulnerable categories of people. Where I think the impact has been felt specifically for people on the move is in two areas. One: borders got more and more difficult to cross … for refugees in particular, crossing borders is a life-saving act.

The other area, of course, is what … refugees share with … the poorest of the poor in the world. The social and economic impact, livelihoods lost, jobs interrupted or finished because of lockdowns. Refugees depend on the type of economy that lockdowns have impacted the most.

And it’s not just the economy. It’s also the education system. We’ve struggled so much in the past … five to 10 years, trying to improve the enrolment figures for refugees in … education. They’re much lower than the non-refugee population. And unfortunately I think COVID, with schools closed for extended periods, with poverty rising, has been a blow to those efforts.

How has the pandemic impacted on the UNHCR’s work?

For an organization like ours, this is tough because fundamentally our work is field-based. We are out there where the refugees, the displaced, the stateless people are. And that has been very challenging. I think there’s been a lot of understanding on the part of governments that humanitarian workers, including UNHCR workers, had to be considered the same way as … health workers. So people … had to be able to continue to work and operate in person with all the due precautions taken because it was vital. The UN coined this slogan at the beginning, ‘We stay and deliver’. We definitely stayed and delivered throughout.

Let’s talk about vaccines. It’s clear that the big vaccination drives are happening mostly in much richer countries. Can you update us on how the vaccine drive is going in refugee populations?

I would say the problem is not refugees. The problem is poor countries. Most leaders I’ve met on my last trips in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America have told me: “Of course, there’s no problem. We will include refugees in our vaccination campaigns. But we don’t have vaccines for anybody. It’s not a matter of being a refugee or a national. We don’t have vaccines.”

So definitely I think the problem is not inequality in respect of refugees, it is inequality between countries. And I think that I am actually surprised that there is not even more outcry about what a scandal it is. I live in Switzerland. Here, now, kids are being vaccinated while old, fragile, vulnerable people out there will have to wait months, including refugees, for their first shot to come. This is the scandal that needs to be corrected.

I suppose there’s a risk as well, if refugee communities are not vaccinated, not only will the disease spread but new mutant variations will come back and haunt the rest of the world if it’s not addressed?

Yes. The fundamental point remains … vaccine equity … let’s try to restore whatever we can of that equity that we failed to achieve in the early phases of the vaccination drive. But it is also true … that refugees, displaced people, are often in very remote and disadvantaged areas of certain countries. So delivering the vaccination there will have additional cost. That’s why we do need additional funds, specific funds for refugee-related vaccination campaigns.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya … both countries host large numbers of refugees [and they need help] to transport the vaccines to these remote areas. Likewise in Bangladesh … almost a million Rohingya refugees live in a very remote area. We will need to help the government once that vaccination drive begins.

The risk of backfiring globally is very, very high. The slogan … that we will not be safe until everybody is safe … is actually the most true slogan of the many that have been coined around the pandemic.

Have you come across any kind of vaccine resistance?

We do see a lot of that resistance. Yesterday, for example, I was on a call with a number of our regional people and they reported … that this is now increasingly one of the main issues that we have to tackle. This is not specific to refugees … but it is in many parts of the world [and] we need to address this. One of the most important things that we have learnt through the pandemic … is that communication is key. And even more importantly, it is key to work with the communities themselves. And I think that this is one of the plusses that we can take out of this horrible period, learning to work more with the communities for which we exist.

[How do you see] the situation now and in the coming months? Is there light at the end of the tunnel yet?

We have to hope that the vaccination drive … expands. But we will have to deal with the consequences in the areas that I have mentioned. And those consequences for refugees [and] for many other vulnerable people will be long lasting.

We hear a lot about, you know, the economy picking up quickly … but I’m just worried that … the most vulnerable will be left even further behind.

The slogan of the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals is: ‘No one should be left behind’. The risk of that … is much higher now than it was a year and a half ago. And this is where we need to focus in the next few years.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

With more than 132 million people worldwide requiring humanitarian assistance, humanitarian responses must become more efficient and effective at delivering aid to those who need it most.

Cash assistance has been recognized as a faster and more effective form of humanitarian aid compared to in-kind assistance such as food, clothing or education. Cash transfers give more control to their beneficiaries, allowing them to prioritize their own needs. They also have a proven track record of fostering entrepreneurialism and boosting local economies.

When the UN Secretary-General issued a call for innovative ways to improve cash-based humanitarian assistance, the World Economic Forum responded by bringing together 18 organizations to create guidelines for public-private cooperation on humanitarian cash transfers.

The guidelines are outlined in the Principles on Public-Private Cooperation in Humanitarian Payments and show how the public and private sectors can work together to deliver digital cash payments quickly and securely to crisis-affected populations. Since its publication in 2016, the report has served as a valuable resource for organizations, humanitarian agencies and government leaders seeking to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and advance financial inclusion.

Learn more about this project and find out how you can join the Forum to get involved in initiatives that are helping millions of lives every day.

And what can be done for millions of people [whose] work [has] gone because of COVID-19?

I think it is very important to do two things. One is short term, and it is, I would almost say, humanitarian. It’s relief. We … and many other organizations, have launched for all these disadvantaged groups, cash programmes. We need to make sure that … these people receive … cash so they can keep going during this transition phase.

But more importantly, because this is not sustainable in the very long term, we need to ensure that all these groups, including refugees … have access to the labour market. Because this is a very important point.

It was not such a huge problem convincing governments to include refugees and displaced [people] in the health response. I think there was a clear understanding that if you left them out, it would be a problem for everybody. But it will be politically much more difficult for governments under pressure from the economic point of view to say [they are going to encompass] refugees as well. We will have to work … with governments, of course, donor partners [and] international financial institutions to ensure that that inclusion at all levels happens.

What about richer countries who are important donor countries for the kind of work you’re doing? Is there a risk that will suffer now as they’re struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic?

Frankly, if you look at the type of money that has been mobilized to respond to COVID and you look at the aid budgets, the proportion is staggering. One is huge and one is very small, comparatively speaking. So I do hope that governments will have a better judgement than that and will not take it [from] aid budgets to compensate for the large expenditure. But the risk is there and we’ve already seen some countries reducing aid budgets.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we’re really all in the same boat here and this is not just about the virus going from one to the other, but, you know, poverty, exclusion, vulnerabilities, they are also pandemics in a way. And they may not be transmitted … through droplets … but if they are not addressed, the repercussions … can be pretty devastating … in terms of instability … insecurity [and] unnecessary migration.

This year, we’re building up to the COP26 conference in November. Could you tell us something about what you see as the impact of climate change on the displacement of people?

There is ample evidence that the climate emergency displaces people, but it does this in many different ways. In the Sahel region, in Africa, West Africa or in the Horn of Africa, northern Mozambique, Central America, we see resources available to rural communities in particular, impacted by climate change becoming more scarce, generating community conflict, which often becomes ethnic … political … and sometimes religious. And it translates into devastating consequences for civilian populations.

This is a very important aspect of the climate discussion. And I do hope that, increasingly, states and other important actors take this into account.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

5 challenges for government adoption of AI

A Sting Exclusive: “Sustainable development goals: what role for business?” Commissioner Mimica asks live from European Business Summit 2015

Christmas spending: Who can afford not to cut?

How teaching ‘future resilient’ skills can help workers adapt to automation

High-Level Forum on providing protection to Afghans at risk

How India is harnessing technology to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution

It’s time to end the stigma around mental health in the workplace

Yes, together we can make a change! YO!Fest and EYE 2016

More urgency needed to help increasing numbers ‘locked out’, before 2030, says UN’s Bachelet

Climate change is forcing 20 million people a year from their homes, Oxfam says

COVID-19 has been a setback for women. Gender-responsive policies can stem the losses

Gig workers among the hardest hit by coronavirus pandemic

This Brooklyn farm company is training a new generation of urban farmers

Empathic AI could be the next stage in human evolution – if we get it right

UN chief urges emergency fund support as one of the ‘most effective investments’ in humanitarian action

LGBTQ+: The social evolution of a minority

EU job-search aid worth €9.9 million for 1,858 former Air France workers

Armed groups threaten every child in Central African Republic, UNICEF warns

Inegalitarian taxation on labour haunts Europe’s social model

Here’s how one business leader is tackling injustice: It starts with personal commitment

To my Chinese friend

UN agency warns conditions around Yemen’s key port city of Hudaydah still ‘very bad’, as staff rush to deliver aid

Commission launches debate on responding to the impact of an ageing population

Honeybees are transforming the lives of mangrove farmers in Viet Nam – here’s how

Migration crisis update: mutual actions and solidarity needed as anti-migrant policies thrive

India vs Virus: voices from the COVID front line

Coronavirus: 70% of the EU adult population fully vaccinated

Azeri natural gas will keep the EU warm soon

Black Lives Matter – for Pakistan’s Sheedi community too

Go early, go hard and keep it simple: how Senegal is staying ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic

Busting the myths about coronavirus

4 key steps to decommissioning coal-fired power plants

Coronavirus response: Team Europe supports Somalia with three EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flights

‘Huge’ stakes, ‘daunting’ job to tackle gender-based violence, UNICEF chief tells ground-breaking conference

We need tech solutions that value human interaction more than ever

European Commission adopts new tools for safe exchanges of personal data

Health Systems and Society: ways to reinforce the human power during the pandemic

Eight years after Fukushima, nuclear power is making a comeback

World Wildlife Day: UN chief urges ‘more caring’ relationship with nature

US – Russia bargain on Syria, Ukraine but EU kept out

How COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education

Portugal: €4.66 million in aid for 1,460 dismissed workers and jobless young

‘A new chapter’ dawns for democracy in Guinea-Bissau: top UN official

Statement by Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager on the Commission’s proposal for a new Regulation to address distortions caused by foreign subsidies in the Single Market

5 surprising ways major cities are going green

The right approach to addressing overcapacity problem from a Chinese perspective

WEF Davos 2016 LIVE: “Chinese economy has great potential, resilience and ample space for policy adjustment”, China’s Vice President Li Yuanchao reassures from Davos

New neighbours: Could Venus really be home to alien life?

Remarks by Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius on the Zero Pollution Action Plan

Chart of the day: When do young Europeans leave home?

UN chief condemns attack targeting international forces in northern Mali

Emotional stability and the COVID-19 pandemic: is it possible to reconcile them?

Volkswagen scandal update: “We want clarity fast, but it is equally important to have the complete picture”, Commission’s spokesperson underscores from Brussels

Nordic noir: The unhappiness epidemic affecting young people in the world’s happiest countries

Climate change: cutting the good by the root?

Why the global trade of chemicals is key to COVID-19 recovery

What does the future of energy look like, how do we get there, and who will benefit?

Brexit: PM May must hush Boris Johnson to unlock the negotiations

Eurozone needs more than some decimals of growth

GSMA Reveals Global Partners for MWC21 Barelona

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: