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Covid Vaccine Effort in Europe Confronts Anger, Disinformation and Suspicion

Covid Vaccine Effort in Europe Confronts Anger, Disinformation and Suspicion
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Covid Vaccine Effort in Europe Confronts Anger, Disinformation and Suspicion

Covid Vaccine Effort in Europe Confronts Anger, Disinformation and Suspicion

BRUSSELS – For people living on the fringes of society, from the homeless to undocumented workers, the coronavirus has long posed an increased risk. Yet here in the de facto capital of the European Union, many are terrified of getting vaccinated.

“People said it would cripple me,” said Rouguiatou Koita, a 32-year-old immigrant from Guinea and mother of four children, including 8-month-old twins. “I was very scared,” she added. “I didn’t know what would happen to my children.

But then a team of social and health workers visited the homeless shelter in Brussels where she lives, and a friend got vaccinated and was fine. Ms. Koita was convinced, and on June 21, she too was vaccinated.

As the vaccination campaign in the European Union has gathered pace, with more than half of the adult population now fully vaccinated, governments are stepping up efforts to reach marginalized populations, including people like Ms Koita. At the same time, they are redoubling their efforts to tackle misinformation about vaccines.

Widespread vaccination, epidemiologists say, is the only way out of the pandemic, but reaching everyone – including those living on the fringes of mainstream society – is not easy. In the European Union, the number of undocumented migrants is estimated at 4.8 million, or around 1% of the population. And they tend to fill jobs with increased risk of exposure, such as in the home care and hospitality industries.

The European Union, like the United States and other rich countries, is now in the privileged position of not fighting for supplies. But each country in the bloc has developed its own plan, and arrangements vary widely in terms of vaccine accessibility.

In the Netherlands, medical teams administer vaccines directly to homeless shelters, and anyone can book a vaccination over the phone without a national registration number. Portugal has created an online platform dedicated to undocumented migrants, although people who register for a photo must still provide an address, date of birth, phone number and nationality. In France, since the end of May, no document is required to subscribe to a vaccine.

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In Belgium, navigating between local, regional and federal administrations was a challenge even before the global health crisis.

The Belgian federal health authority’s initial plan, which was due to be implemented from December, stipulated that vaccinations would be based on the home address and professional status of each resident, according to an overview from the medical journal The Lancet . Using these criteria, reaching people with irregular jobs, temporary housing or undocumented migrants was a problem.

Since then, authorities at federal and regional levels have pledged to include undocumented and homeless people in efforts to expand the vaccination campaign, which in Belgium is being implemented by local governments.

The problem is particularly pressing in Brussels, the capital, which has around 1.2 million inhabitants and around 80,000 undocumented migrants. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, migrants have been “disproportionately affected” by the pandemic.

In marginalized segments of the population where mistrust of the authorities is deep, reluctance to vaccinate is also high.

In an attempt to simplify things around vaccination, the Brussels authorities have deployed mobile vaccination teams to register people for injections and any follow-up treatment using a special number issued on site without background checks. People considered to need special attention, including pregnant women, can also be referred via this system to a vaccination site in a hospital in central Brussels.

Ms Koita said the awareness helped.

“I went upstairs to do my laundry and saw the queue,” she said. “I got curious and talked to nurses who explained everything to me. “

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The mobile teams, made up of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and interpreters for languages ​​including Arabic and Tigrinya, vaccinate everyone, regardless of their legal status.

“Reluctance to vaccinate is a problem to the same extent as in the general population,” said Lily Caldwell, 36, an American aid worker with Doctors Without Borders and coordinator of the mobile vaccination campaign. “The difference is that migrants often don’t know many people who have already been vaccinated. “

His team traveled between different locations, including centers for assisting migrants in transit and homes for victims of domestic violence.

The crew hopes to vaccinate 5,000 people by the end of September. He has vaccinated 1,190 since June.

Vaccination teams are rolling out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the only one registered in the European Union that requires only one dose.

In a recent three-hour briefing event at a former hospital in central Brussels with representatives from migrant communities, social workers spent a lot of time tackling disinformation. Vaccination teams also have to deal with migrants’ anger over the way they were treated during the pandemic, with many feeling the state let them down during the crisis.

Around 450 migrants recently went on a two-month hunger strike, calling for the legalization of their status and more clarity on how to obtain Belgian residency.

The idea arose out of desperation, said Tarik, a spokesperson for the hunger strikers, who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

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“Most of us have been here for decades and we are being exploited,” he said. “We work like Belgians, but we earn 30 to 40 euros a day” – around $ 35 to $ 47.

Because undocumented people often work in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as restaurants, cafes and hotels, many have lost their jobs.

Mehdi Kassou, the founder of the Brussels Citizen’s Platform for the Support of Refugees, who represented the protesters on hunger strike during negotiations with the government, described the pandemic as “a real accelerator of poverty and insecurity among those without. -paper ”.

Protesters suspended their hunger strike last week, some reportedly left in serious condition.

“People are in a very bad condition,” said Tarik, who has lost 31 pounds and has been hospitalized twice. “We have suspended the hunger strike because we have seen progress in the negotiations. “

The issue of migration is politically as explosive in Belgium as in many other countries. The current government was made up of seven political parties and nearly collapsed during the hunger strike, when the Socialists and the Greens, both members of the coalition, threatened to withdraw if a protester died.

For many undocumented migrants, the urgency of the vaccination campaign was revealing.

“There is a health crisis, and all of a sudden we exist,” said Abdel, a 37-year-old undocumented migrant from Morocco, who also asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid attract the attention of the authorities.

“We don’t want vaccination without regularization,” he added. “They can’t come and say, ‘Now you exist, now you have to get the vaccine.’ “

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