Canada says first COVID-19 vaccine for refugees in Jordan offers glimmer of hope

·3 min read

OTTAWA — Canada's international development minister says the world's first inoculation of a refugee against COVID-19 this week is an important milestone in ending the pandemic everywhere.

Karina Gould told The Canadian Press in a statement that it was encouraging to see the rollout of new vaccinations because "it brings an early glimmer of hope to the most vulnerable people right across the globe as we fight this terrible pandemic."

A woman living in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid who had fled northern Iraq became the first United Nations registered refugee to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.

Before the pandemic, Canada committed $2.1 billion in security, humanitarian and development funds to help Jordan and neighbouring Lebanon cope with the massive influx of refugees they face due to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

Since the pandemic began, Canada has committed more than $865 million to the ACT-Accelerator, a global effort to ensure low- and middle-income countries have equitable access to medical treatments during the pandemic. It has also committed $220 million to its partner initiative, the COVAX Facility, to help buy vaccine doses for low- and middle-income countries.

"While we're fighting for the health of our own citizens, I am committed to ensure we're not leaving the rest of the world behind," said Gould, who was appointed Friday as the co-chair of the COVAX international engagement group.

The appointment will see Gould working with the Indonesian foreign minister, the Ethiopian health minister and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which has emerged in the last two decades as the major distributor of vaccines to poor countries.

"Canada has invested $865 million into global health efforts against COVID-19 and continues to make equitable access to a vaccine and health solutions to the pandemic a reality for all, including refugees living in precarious conditions," said Gould.

In an updated mandate letter released Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Gould to work with new Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and other cabinet colleagues to "reinforce international efforts to ensure that people around the world have access to health interventions to fight COVID-19, including vaccines, therapeutics and strengthened health systems."

Rema Jamous Imseis, the Canadian representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said if refugees aren't vaccinated, they run the risk of infecting people in their host countries.

"If you want to defeat the pandemic, you have to include refugees in the vaccine rollout around the world," she said.

"That's sort of the bigger context and what we're doing is calling on all governments, Canada included, to ensure that refugees and other displaced populations are included."

Jordan is also the home to the Zaatari refugee camp, one of the world's largest, less than 15 kilometres from the Syrian border. It is home to almost 80,000 people, including more than 40,000 children, fleeing the carnage of Syria's decade-long civil war and the unrest sparked by Islamic militants in Iraq.

Canada has deployed hundreds of military personnel to northern Iraq and neighbouring Kuwait as part of a Western effort to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Canada supplies the commander of the NATO training mission in northern Iraq that is trying to professionalize Iraqi security forces to protect its own citizens from ISIL.

"COVID has essentially been an emergency on top of an emergency for refugees around the world," said Jamous Imseis.

"Canada came out early and strong as one of the donors to the COVAX initiative," she added.

"But we also need Canada to use its influence with his friends and other countries around the world to ensure that that basic principle of equitable and global access to vaccines for everyone is something that we're all working towards."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press