While countries are working towards vaccinating their respective populations against COVID-19, Jordan is leading the way in administering the vaccine to some of their most vulnerable: refugees and asylum seekers.
Zaatari, established in 2012, is a refugee camp in Jordan and home to 80,000 migrants, making it equivalent to the fourth largest city in the country. It is also known to be the largest refugee camp in the Middle East and the second-largest in the world. In January, the Jordanian Ministry of Health and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched the world’s first vaccination centre for refugees. Today, the centre has set a target of delivering 50 vaccinations a day.
The Jordanian government is committed to this goal despite the country’s limited resources and vaccine doses. Jordan is currently far from acquiring enough doses to vaccinate its entire population of 10.5 million. As of the end of last week, the country had 37,790 active cases of COVID-19.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, tells VICE World News that Jordan’s handling of the coronavirus vaccine shows “exemplary leadership and solidarity”. The country included refugees in its national response plan since the start of the pandemic and has allowed any individual on Jordanian soil to be eligible to receive the vaccine.
Grandi urges that every country follow suit and include refugees in their vaccination efforts.
The Jordanian government has identified 74 centres to distribute the vaccine, which includes Zaatari and Azraq, another refugee camp. Azraq was built in 2014, after Zaatari was close to reaching its full capacity. The camp holds approximately 40,000 refugees. Both camps primarily house Syrians, most of whom fled their country as a result of the ongoing civil war.
According to UNHCR, there are over 655,000 refugees in Jordan, comprising 10 percent of Jordan’s population. Approximately 80 percent of the refugees reside outside of camps and about 93 percent live below the country’s poverty line.
The first case of COVID-19 in a refugee camp was confirmed in Azraq in September 2020. Since then 1,928 refugees have tested positive for the virus. COVID-19 cases within camps are significantly lower compared to that of Jordan’s general population, with 1.6 percent of camp residents contracting the virus.
UNHCR and International Medical Corps (IMC) are supporting Jordan’s Ministry of Health, who are responsible for actually administering the vaccine.
Clara Long, IMC’s media and communications officer, says that their on-ground role in Jordan’s camps primarily consists of facilitating health programs. This includes registering refugees to take the vaccine, providing pre-vaccine health checks, and transporting refugees to the vaccination centre. They also provide follow up consultations for those who receive the jab.
Dr. Ahmad Al Zghool, Medical Coordinator at IMC, tells VICE World News that there was a lot of anxiety and fear within the camps at the start of the pandemic. “The Jordanian government has made a lot of effort through television, social media and radio to inform people about the situation,” Dr. Zghool says. “As IMC, the main health partner, we provided awareness and education sessions during shelter visits. We continue that process throughout the pandemic.”
As with most vaccine rollout plans, Jordanian authorities have identified those with the highest need. “The first stage started with people who are above 60 years of age and those with high-risk factors,” Dr. Zghool adds. In Zaatari, 240 people were identified as first priority for the vaccine, while in Azraq, the number is currently just 15.
Since the start of the pandemic, the number of general mental health consultations within the camps has seen a sharp increase.
To combat growing mental health concerns linked with the pandemic, IMC worked with the Ministry of Health and the Jordanian Psychiatrist Society to establish psychosocial support hotlines. The hotlines provide answers to those with questions about the pandemic, ensuring that the refugee population within the camps are aware of any dangers or symptoms associated with the virus. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Dr. Zghool tells VICE that one of IMC’s ongoing tasks in the vaccination process is targeting misinformation and raising awareness about the importance of taking the vaccine.
“Social media has somehow affected the general reaction to the vaccine. Some people believed it was an ‘easy’ disease, which didn’t need a vaccine. We targeted all of those misconceptions in an effort to improve the public opinion,” he said.
Now, the elderly, retired, and high-risk population of the camps are “especially happy” to receive the vaccine, he says. They had largely restricted their movement since last March and are awaiting a return to normalcy.
Jordan may be the first country to include refugees in the initial vaccination process, but others have now vowed to do the same. Lebanon and Kenya are amongst those to announce that refugees will be a part of vaccination efforts in their respective countries.