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COVID-19 Vaccine: Ensuring That People Affected By Armed Conflict Aren’t Forgotten

As vaccines for COVID-19 become available, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hopes to ensure that people affected by conflict and violence who might otherwise be forced to the back of the line or forgotten all-together also have equitable access to the vaccine.

For people living in conflict areas, access to basic health services is often challenging or impossible. These populations are just as vulnerable to COVID-19 and deserve to be protected from this severe health menace. In addition, the ICRC estimates that more than 60 million people live in areas controlled by non-state armed groups who may not have the means to advocate for and procure the vaccine.

The ICRC is also advocating for other marginalised communities to gain equitable access to the vaccine, including internally displaced persons, migrants, asylum seekers and detainees, all of whom must be recognized as people in need of the health protections the vaccine will provide.

“A health worker or someone with a compromised immune system in regions affected by armed conflict may have a difficult time getting the COVID-19 vaccine. These populations endure the double burden of conflict and COVID in often-forgotten and neglected areas. We believe that people there should have the same right and access to the vaccine as others do,” said Robert Mardini, ICRC’s director-general.

In conflict settings, poor health capacities due to the breakdown or destruction of health services, lack of health personnel, precarious infrastructure and severed roads might hamper vaccine distribution. Reaching front-lines and areas controlled by non-state armed groups brings complications such as difficult logistics, the need for travel permissions and reduced availability of electricity and refrigeration. Restrictive measures and sanctions may impede access to these areas.

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Together with the International Federation of the Red Cross, the ICRC will support Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies as they have a leading role in carrying out vaccination programs and distributing the COVID vaccine in their respective countries.

In particular, the ICRC is ready to support national vaccination campaigns and facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine by populations in countries affected by armed conflict and violence. Also, the ICRC is ready to use its privileged position and offer its services as a neutral intermediary to ensure access to the vaccine for people living in conflict zones, in areas not under governmental control and in places of detention. If these populations remain excluded from a COVID-19 vaccine, it could lead to further discrimination of these already underserved populations.

The ICRC asks that:

  • States support Red cross and Red Crescent National Societies, who have a key role in COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Parties to conflict give access to the vaccine to populations under their control and facilitate the work of the health personnel in charge of vaccinations.
  • States grant equal access to the vaccine to populations in humanitarian settings and allow and support humanitarian organizations to this end.
  • States maintain and strengthen routine immunizations and essential health services. Measles and polio campaigns have been suspended in dozens of countries, and at least 80 million children under age 1 are at risk of diseases with significant mortality such as measles, diphtheria and polio. Whilst a COVID vaccine is urgent, other vaccines are also most needed and must be provided.

Community members, particularly existing social mobilisers, Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers and religious leaders should be invited to help design and implement vaccine mobilisation plans. Engaging communities and providing them with accurate information will be critical for the success of COVID-19 vaccination programs and the safety of health personnel.

“Together with its Movement partners, the ICRC is ready to contribute to the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially in areas affected by conflict and ‘last-mile’ areas along the frontlines, as well as in places of detention,” said Mr. Mardini. “We will also prioritize routine vaccinations and work to provide reliable information about vaccines.”

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