Vaccine politics and human rights

COVID vaccine vile and needle next to a placard that says "reserved"

More than 32 million COVID shots have now been administered globally, raising hopes that the light at the end of the tunnel is now in sight.

The US has vaccinated 3 percent of its total population, while the UK is nearing a solid 5 percent inoculation rate. In Israel, which has been hailed as a vaccine success story, almost 24 percent of people have already received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

But while many countries are able to glimpse the outlines of a post-COVID world, there is a huge population of people who are being left out entirely. Refugees, as well as displaced, undocumented, and stateless people around the world remain ineligible for inoculations and vulnerable to the coronavirus.

We take a look at three case studies where powerless populations are being left in the lurch.


Colombia's Venezuelan migrant dilemma. The dire economic and political crises under the Maduro regime in Venezuela have plunged 65 percent of households into poverty and caused widespread food and medicine shortages. As a result, 1.7 million desperate Venezuelans have spilled over into neighboring Colombia, putting a massive strain on Colombia's already weak public infrastructure.

Now Colombian President Ivan Duque says that those who don't have formal migration status will not have access to Colombia's vaccine stash, meaning that around 935,000 Venezuelan refugees will be ineligible for the shot. Duque claims the policy is aimed at prioritizing the wellbeing of Colombians first amid a surging outbreak, and avoiding a rush on the border as more Venezuelans clamor to get the vaccine. But public health experts say that the move isn't just a humanitarian failure, it's also an epidemiological one that will hamper Colombia's efforts to root out the disease, because a successful vaccine drive should be as broad as possible.

Israel shirks responsibility to Palestinians. Israel has been broadly praised for its ambitious vaccine drive, now leading the world in COVID vaccinations per capita by a long shot. At this rate, the government aims to vaccinate the entire population of 9 million by the end of March, a remarkable feat as vaccine rollouts remain sluggish across North America and Europe.

But Israel's vaccine drive excludes millions of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip (though the Strip is run by the Islamist Hamas militant group and not the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority).

Israeli officials say that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not reached out for assistance with vaccine procurement, an odd justification for inaction during a once-in-a-generation global crisis. They also argue that under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the de-facto law of the land, the Palestinian Authority oversees healthcare for its people. (Arab citizens of Israel are in fact being vaccinated.)

But application of international law here is murky: while the Oslo Accords gave the Palestinian Authority responsibility in the West Bank and Gaza, the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power (Israel) has a clear responsibility to assist those living under its occupation (the Palestinians). Under Israel's current vaccine scheme, millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, many of whom work in Israeli cities, are being left behind.

Undocumented migrants abandoned in the US. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts recently sparked a firestorm when he said undocumented immigrants would be ineligible for COVID vaccines in his state. Ricketts doubled down even when critics pointed out that 11 percent of Nebraska's meat processing workers, who have been pummeled by COVID-19, are undocumented.

Similar conversations have played out in New York state, home to at least 750,000 undocumented migrants (likely an undercount) who are disproportionately represented in essential jobs. The federal government recently reneged on a requirement mandating that states report the personal details of all vaccine recipients, information that could then be passed on to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, after the government flip-flop, it's unclear whether undocumented New Yorkers — who fear arrest and deportation — will now feel safe to show up for the jab.

Not enough vaccines. Leaving behind the most vulnerable populations both within their own countries' borders and in adopted ones, is not only morally questionable, it is bad public health policy as the world strives to get to COVID zero. But there is a very basic constraint here for all the politicians involved: there are fewer vaccines than people, and no elected leader could agree to vaccinate non-citizens before citizens, could they?

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"He is speaking to us with a kind of force and clarity...that to me is just so enduring." - Ken Burns

No country in the Western Hemisphere is more closely associated with disaster and misery than the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Its latest upheaval centers on news that the country's top prosecutor wants Haiti's prime minister to answer questions about the murder of the president in July. Haiti is again locked in a power struggle among competing factions within its ruling elite.

Why is Haiti still so poor and disaster-prone?

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For Michael Chertoff, former US secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, the fact that America has not experienced a single attack by foreign terrorists since 9/11 proves that the US was "successful" in its strategy to prevent terrorism. That "was not [an] accident and there was a deterrent effect to be honest — had we been lax, more would have tried." Although he admits the US government wasn't transparent enough about the intelligence it was collecting, Chertoff credits US intelligence agencies with helping to foil the plot to blow up airplanes mid-air from Heathrow to the US in 2006. The US mission in Iraq, or what came after was not clearly thought out, according to Michael Chertoff, who served as the Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. The Iraq war made it difficult to focus on the US mission in Afghanistan and absorbed resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere, he said.

Watch the full episode: Is America safer since 9/11?

Listen: In a frank interview on the GZERO World podcast, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, speaks with Ian Bremmer at the UN ahead of the annual General Assembly week. Guterres discusses COVID, climate, the US-China rift, and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and does not mince words when it comes to the dire state of the world. "We are standing at the edge of an abyss," Guterres warns. COVID is "defeating" the global community and a climate catastrophe is all but assured without drastic action. Amidst this unprecedented peril, there remains a startling lack of trust among nations. And yet, there is still hope.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.


"Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still." — Harry S. Truman

The former US president's warning feels particularly prescient as world leaders prepare to gather at the 76th United National General Assembly in New York City, the first such in-person event in over 18 months. The importance of apt leadership in determining societies' ability to cope — and survive — has been on full display since COVID-19 enveloped the globe, decimating communities and killing some 4.5 million people.

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As the 76th UN General Assembly gets underway, dealing with the pandemic is still the top priority for world leaders. But for John Frank, vice president of UN Global Affairs at Microsoft, COVID is not the only major challenge the world faces today.

One of them — included in the UN Secretary-General's new Common Agenda for strong, inclusive pandemic recovery — is a different way to measure economic growth beyond the traditional productivity-led GDP model by taking more into account the cost of pollution, one of the main causes of climate change.

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For UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the pandemic has made the world even more divided than it was before COVID. That's especially true on climate, in his view, because rich and poor countries simply don't trust each other anymore. If we want COP26 to succeed, Guterres says we must rebuild that trust — or face the consequences of inaction. "If you are on the verge of an abyss, you must be careful about your next step." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

"Pandemic" was the most used word of 2020. "Delta" looks set to inherit this year's title.

Vaccination rates are ticking up slowly. Governments aren't talking to each other enough. Parts of the world are back to normal, while others are still locked down.

Have we actually made any progress since the COVID-19 outbreak?


Unfinished Business: Is the World Really Building Back Better?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 11am ET/ 8am PT

Our speakers:

Special appearance by António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Visit gzeromedia.com/globalstage to watch on the day of the event.

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UNGA 76: Vaccines, climate, crises

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