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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The Taliban’s never-ending crisis

Afghanistan has now become what the UN is labeling the planet’s worst humanitarian disaster. Indeed, last week the world body issued its largest-ever donor appeal for a single country to battle the worsening crisis there, caused by freezing temperatures, frozen assets, and the cold reception the Taliban have received from the international community since they took over last summer.

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Governments around the world are offering creative incentives for getting a jab.

If you happen to live in New York and are one of the city’s 18% of unvaccinated residents, now might be a good time to go get jabbed. But not just because of omicron.

In late December, now former NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the city would start offering gift cards, free roller coaster rides on Coney Island and trips to the Statue of Liberty to those who get their shots. And it’s not just the Big Apple.

As infections jump, vaccination incentive programs have been brought back around the world. Officials in vaccine-hesitant Missouri have earmarked $11 million dollars for gift cards worth $100. Vermont is awarding schools with per-pupil bonuses if they hit rates higher than 85%.

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What We’re Watching: China's problems, UAE vs Houthis, Nord Stream 2 split

China's mounting problems. Xi Jinping is not off to a good start in 2022. First, Chinese economic growth slowed down to 4 percent in the last quarter of 2021, almost a percentage point less than the previous period. While annual GDP was up 8.1 percent year-on-year, beating government expectations, the trend is worrying for the world’s second-largest economy. Second, annual population growth fell in 2021 to its lowest rate since 1949, when the ruling Communist Party took over. Although Xi probably saw this one coming, he's running out of ideas to encourage Chinese families to have more children — which the government needs in order to sustain growth and support the elderly over the long term. Third, and most immediate: the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics canceled ticket sales for domestic spectators — foreigners were not invited — as the more transmissible omicron variant has driven up COVID infections in China to the highest level since March 2020. It's only the latest sign that Xi's controversial zero-COVID policy is setting itself up for failure against omicron without mRNA vaccines. What'll it take for China to reverse course?

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Hard Numbers: Tongan volcano, Ukrainian cyberattack, Zemmour fined over hate speech, NK-China border reopens

100,000: We're still waiting for news from the Pacific nation of Tonga, two days after a massive underwater volcanic explosion triggered a tsunami that was felt thousands of miles away and sent a plume of ash 100,000 feet into the sky. With communications mostly cut off, Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to assess the damage.

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Iran’s nuclear program runs hotter

Talks between Iran’s government and world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program continue. The US and Iran are still not communicating directly; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia are shuttling between them.

The good news is that they’re all still talking. The bad news is that, after eight rounds of negotiations, the main players haven’t agreed on anything that would constitute a breakthrough.

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Omicron is here. The bad news is that it's more contagious. The good news is that mRNA vaccines work against death and hospitalization. COVID may soon become endemic in some parts of the world.

Not in China, where Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach faces its toughest test to date with omicron. Why? Because China lacks mRNA jabs, and so few Chinese people have gotten COVID that overall protection is very low.

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January 6 laid bare "the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society," says Fiona Hill, the former US senior director of the National Security Council. In a GZERO World interview, she spoke with Ian Bremmer about her concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.

Hill famously testified against her impeached boss, Donald Trump, who stayed in power after being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. She also notes that divisions actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

Watch this episode of GZERO World: American strife: Will US democracy survive? Fiona Hill explains post-Jan 6 stakes

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