United Kingdom, Norway & UNICEF Reaffirm Calls for “Global Cease Fire” in UN Security Council Open Debate on COVID-19 Vaccines Access 
MSF relief worker administers a pneumonia vaccine to a child in Greece as part of a 2016 campaign targeting refugees arriving in Europe – Photo: MSF/ Sophia Apostolia

The United Kingdom, Norway and UNICEF on Wednesday appealed to world leaders to give stronger backing to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call in March 2020 for a “global cease-fire” in order to beat the COVID-19 pandemic and get vaccines to tens of millions of undocumented migrants and refugees, as well as people living in conflict zones. The latter includes some 60 million people living in areas controlled by non-stated armed groups, according to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

They spoke during an open debate on getting COVID-19 vaccines to conflict zones, underway in the UN Security Council on Wednesday.   

The debate brings together foreign ministers from nearly a dozen other countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, China, India, Kenya, Mexico, Tunisia and Ireland – to address barriers to ensuring that the vaccine rollout can reach the most vulnerable – including nbot only people living in conflict zones, but also migrants and unregistered immigrants. Conversely, the role of the pandemic in exacerbating ongoing local and regional conflicts is also on the agenda.  

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was chairing the virtual debate, on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2532, on the cessation of hostilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was adopted in July, 2020, noted that some 160 million people in countries such as Yemen could miss out on vaccines due to war. 

United Nations Security Council debate on vaccine access in conflict zones

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to set out more details on vaccinating refugees and people in conflict zones at a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Friday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stress test of national and global health systems and our systems of governance,” said Norway’s Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide. “Now we, as an international community, and as this Security Council, must forge a united way forward.” 

The Norwegian minister said that the Scandanavian country was advocating three key principles in terms of the pandemic battle: ensuring equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines; humanitarian access for vaccines to reach the most vulnerable; and the global cease-fire.

“Hostilities must cease in order to allow vaccination to take place in conflict areas,” said Søreide. “In many conflict areas, civilians and combatants are living in territories controlled or contested by non-state armed groups. Reaching these populations may involve engaging with actors whose behaviour we condemn. The successful dialogues with armed groups in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere to allow humanitarian access for polio and other health campaigns offer lessons for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.”

She added: “From Idlib to Gaza, from Menaka to Tigray: It is our duty as the Security Council to keep a close eye on these shifting dynamics, to coordinate efforts, and to facilitate full and unimpeded humanitarian access, as well as peaceful resolution of conflicts. We must call for concerted action across all the pillars and institutions of the UN to secure the widest and most equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.” 

Her remarks came shortly after Israel agreed to allow the transfer of some 2000 vaccines donated by Russia to the barricaded Gaza Strip, despite demands by some Israeli parliamentarians that Gaza’s Hamas rulers first return two Israelis being held hostage in the Strip, Avera Megistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in border skirmishes. 

India Calls On Countries to ‘Stop Vaccine Nationalism & Hoarding’ – Offers 200,000 Sergum Institute Vaccine Doses To UN Peacekeepers as a Gift
Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar

Meanwhile, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar announced that India will provide 200,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to UN Peacekeepers – India’s vaccines are being locally produced by the Serum Institute of India under a license from AstraZeneca.

“Keeping in mind UN Peacekeepers, we would like to announce today a gift of 200,000 vaccine doses for them,” he said.

Jaishankar protested what he described as the “glaring disparity” in vaccines access, calling for stronger member state “cooperation within the framework of COVAX, which is trying to secure adequate vaccine doses for the world’s poorest nations,” and outlined a nine-point plan to: “Stop ‘vaccine nationalism’; ….actively encourage internationalism” and combat pandemic and vaccine disinformation.

He called out rich countries that have purchased multiple doses for every citizen stating that: “hoarding superfluous doses will defeat our efforts towards attaining collective health security.”

Henrietta Fore – Countries Also Must Restart Vaccine Campaigns Against Other Diseases
A refugee filling an application at the UNHCR registration center in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Meanwhile, UNICEF’s Henrietta Fore said that her agency was working hard to support a plan to distribute some two billion vaccines in low- and middle-income areas over the course of 2021 through the COVAX global vaccine facility, co-sponsored by WHO, GAVI-The Vaccine Alliance, and CEPI, the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiative.  

However, UN member states  must include the millions of people living through, or fleeing, conflict and instability” in their national vaccine planning, “regardless of their legal status or if they live in areas controlled by non-state entities.”

Fore described it “not only as a matter of justice. But as the only pathway to ending this pandemic for all.” 

Restarting stalled immunization campaigns for other diseases remains equally critical, she said, adding: “We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against others.”

UNICEF Lays Out Huge Logistics Challenges Of Vaccine Campaigns
Physical distancing measures have been set up by the UN in a refugee camp in South Sudan, where rations have been increased to reduce the number of times large groups need to gather to receive humanitarian aid.

In her remarks, Fore also laid out the huge logistics challenges that the agency is facing, together with its partners – as well as the challenge of reaching a vaccine target audience of older people that is not typically a UNICEF focus.

“Using existing immunization infrastructure, we’re also working to reach people not normally targeted in our immunization programmes — including health workers, the elderly and other high-risk groups,” Fore said.

“We’re helping governments establish pre-registration systems and prioritizing which people, such as health-care workers, need to receive vaccines first.

“We’re engaging communities and building trust to defeat misinformation.

“We’re training health workers to deliver the vaccine, and helping governments recruit and deploy more health workers where they’re needed most.

“We’re advocating with local and national governments to use other proven health measures like masks and physical distancing.

“And now, through the COVAX Facility, we’re working with Gavi, WHO and CEPI to procure and deliver the COVID vaccines in close collaboration with vaccine manufacturers, and freight, logistics and storage providers.

The daunting challenges also mean ensuring that enough syringes are available for the available doses in each country, procuring syringes and safety boxes, and inventories of cold chain systems.

“It means finding ways to ensure distribution and delivery in logistically difficult contexts like South Sudan or DRC — or high-threat environments like Yemen or Afghanistan,” she said. “It means negotiating access to populations across multiple lines of control by non-state armed groups — areas that the ICRC estimates represent some 60 million people.”

Image Credits: UNHCR/Elizabeth Marie Stuart, MSF/ Sophia Apostolia, Mohamed Azakir / World Bank.

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