DSPR: Palestinians Wait to Receive COVID Vaccines

DSPR: Palestinians Wait to Receive COVID Vaccines

written by Dr. Bernard Sabella, Execuitve Secretary of the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) of the Middle East Council of Churches, from Jerusalem

We have left the extraordinary and turbulent year of 2020 behind us and are sliding into 2021, which we hope will put the global pandemic behind us with vaccinations. One of the world’s largest vaccination campaigns started in Israel on December 19, 2020, and by January 19 has reached 41.8% of the population as close to 4 million first and second dose vaccinations have been administered to date. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem who have access to the vaccinations are for the most part hesitant to be vaccinated for fear of adverse reactions. Of late, more East Jerusalem citizens are being vaccinated because they are encouraged by those who already received the vaccine with no adverse reactions. Another example of the fear of vaccination are the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Bedouins in the South of the country, who have a low vaccination rate when compared to their Israeli Jewish counterparts. In comparing vaccination progress by various countries, Israel leads with 41.8/100 citizens in comparison to the UK 10.1; USA 6.2; Italy 2.3; Canada 2.1; Germany 1.9; France 1.5; Sweden 1.4; Netherlands 0.8; World 0.8.  

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Occupied Territory, wait to receive vaccines, which could take at least a few more months, as authorities struggle to keep infection rates low. The Palestinian government has signed deals with four vaccine manufacturers and their doses are expected to arrive during the first quarter of 2021. Some thousand of doses will arrive in February from the WHO part of its vaccination scheme for low-to-middle-income countries. According to the 4th Geneva Convention on obligations of occupying forces, Israel in this case, they must provide health care to the populations of territories they are occupying, the Palestinians. To date, however, no extension of the Israeli vaccination campaign has been made to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territory. Amnesty International deputy regional director has referred to this as “institutionalized discrimination.” One of the problems faced in the vaccination campaigns is the hesitancy of Palestinians in general to receive them. This needs to be overcome and we in DSPR need to adopt ways and measures to encourage our local stakeholders to be part of the vaccination efforts. 

Our colleagues in Gaza report that DSPR continues its activities with strict safety instructions. Whenever convenient, contact with those in vocational training courses or in need of medical consultation is made virtually. The offices remain open and activities are undertaken in as normal as possible. On Fridays and Saturdays, when all is under lockdown, we follow the instructions of the Health authorities and refrain from activities. Apparently this policy of closure on Fridays and Saturdays has proved effective as the rates of infection in Gaza are leveling down, although the number of tests for detecting the virus are not high when compared to other countries in the region. 

Jordan started its vaccination campaign in 29 centers across the country on January 13, 2021. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and China’s Sinopharm were approved for use. Jordan is set to receive some 3 million vaccine shots in the next few weeks. The priority goes to the most vulnerable groups including the elderly, those with chronic diseases, and medical personnel. The goal is to cover at least 25% of the country’s population in the next months. The Jordanian Ministry of Health has created an internet platform where those who want to receive the vaccine can register. Over 250,000 Jordanian citizens have already signed on to receive the vaccination. Of relevance to our work, Jordan has adopted a policy of vaccinating all who want to receive the vaccine, inclusive of refugees and asylum seekers, which is a first which we hope will be emulated by other countries in the region and worldwide. Top officials in the country have received the vaccine to serve as models for some who are hesitant. 

The lockdown led to the suspension of some services, such as home visits in dental and obstetrics, but we have resumed most of these services. To protect our beneficiaries and employees, we have redesigned our programs to ensure safety. None of our employees has been infected, and none of our beneficiaries has been infected because our programs serve them. The indicators are affected to some extent by the lockdown. We are trying to resume operations as far as possible. Increasing poverty means that patients are no longer able to pay the fees for health services, and this leads to an increase in poverty-related diseases such as malnutrition. The suspension of health services in the MOH combined with the limited capacity of the MOH has increased the demand for health services.    

Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR representative in Jordan said that “reducing the spread of COVID-19 now necessitates that the most vulnerable people in our society and around the world can access vaccines, no matter where they come from.”  The UNHCR says the number of refugees with the infection in Jordan has remained low at 1.6 percent compared with 3 percent among the general population.  But poverty rates among the refugees have spiked by 18 percent since the outbreak last March. Both the Jordanian government and the U.N. say they need additional funding to aid more than 1.5 million refugees hosted in the country. The UNHCR Jordan is appealing for $370 million to help the refugees. Palestinian refugee camps will benefit from the vaccination efforts of the Jordan government as these camps are supervised by UNRWA and not by UNHCR. Jordanian governmental efforts together with the international organizations on the vaccination process make us in DSPR Jordan set to join the efforts by encouraging our local stakeholders, in the different refugee camps where we have a presence, to join the vaccination campaign. 

Lebanese authorities have begun enforcing an 11-day nationwide shutdown and round the clock curfew starting on Friday the 15th of January, hoping to limit the spread of coronavirus infections amid a dramatic surge after the Christmas and New Year holiday period. The lockdown has now been extended to February 8th. For the first time, residents were required to request online a one-hour permit to be allowed to leave their homes for “emergencies,” including going to the bakery, pharmacist, doctor, hospital, or airport. Amid the surge, many hospitals have now reached maximum capacity for coronavirus patients. Some have halted elective surgeries as they run out of beds, oxygen tanks, and ventilators. Our colleague Sylvia experiences the lockdown from her own apartment while eager to remain in contact, via telephone and internet, with the various centers of DSPR. Some of our vocational training activities, particularly those with young women, are being followed via virtual means, whenever possible. It is frustrating and can be quite depressive for all to be forced to stay home but apparently getting together, particularly in large numbers or in restricted quarters, can be detrimental to public health. 

DSPR would like to invite you to our third webinar on Wednesday 3 February 16:00 – 17:30 Amman time (GMT+2) ‘Psychosocial Challenges, Vaccination & the Impact of COVID19 in the Middle East’. In this webinar, we will focus on the COVID19 situation in the Middle East and psychosocial challenges and support that are present, with a focus on Palestinian refugees in the camps and communities across the region. The discussion will include an overview and update of the work of UNRWA on dealing with COVID19 and what preparations have been made for vaccination. Director of Health at UNRWA, Dr. Seita, will be addressing this as he provides an overview of the situation and the challenges that the situation poses for UNRWA and the refugees in the camps. Regional Director of Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) and NECC/DSPR-Gaza Consultant Dr. Bassam Abu Hamad shares his perspective on psychosocial challenges and the mental health impact of COVID19, and how to deal with them. Fares Swais, Executive Director of DSPR Jordan, and a UNICEF Lebanon Representative (to be confirmed) will share updates about Jordan and Lebanon respectively. What Psychosocial Challenges do people face in the Middle East? How is the COVID19 Situation for Palestinians in refugee camps? What Impact does the pandemic have on Mental Health, and how can we Cope? And what is the status of Vaccination for countries in the Region? You will be able to ask questions to the speakers and share your own views about this topic! Please note this Webinar will start at 16:00 Amman time (GMT+2). 

We hope you will join us for the third webinar on Wednesday 3 February 16:00-17:30 Amman time! The webinar is openly accessible for everyone using the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82791317087

We remain steadfast in our determination to serve, to live with the virus and to hope for better days. Stay safe, with our friendship and appreciation for your support.