By Linda N
The seemingly unrelenting emotional rollercoaster that became official following an announcement of a pandemic by the World Health Organization is gradually coming to an end. On December 14, 2020, New York City made history by recording the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to the first people. One of them is a health worker in Queens, an act that symbolizes hope and optimism. A decisive attempt to bring the virus under control and heralds the genesis to the end of a ten-month onslaught by the ‘bereavement multiplier disease,’ contracted by over 16 million people in America, according to USAFacts. A virus, managed hitherto, by aggressive treatment, testing, and quarantine. Since then, the country has distributed over 2.5 million doses to various facilities.
The Politics of COVID-19 Vaccine
Despite the apparent possibilities of returning normalcy that the vaccine represents, several challenges await this breakthrough. According to the USA Today report, beyond the logistic, social and medical challenges such as inadequate funds in states to purchase and hire enough PPE and trained personnel respectively for a safe and rapid disbursement. The Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited the George Washington University Hospital to witness the vaccine’s administration to a few health workers, raised a significant obstacle to the campaign to get vaccinated among one of the racial groups hardest hit by the pandemic – Black Americans. An obstacle emanates from a deep-seated lack of trust from historical events like the ill-famed Tuskegee study, which left hundreds of Black men with syphilis untreated for over 40 years by the federal government.
An additional challenge to the campaign is the non-inclusion of undocumented immigrants’ welfare, who make up close to 3 percent of the national population in the vaccine’s emergency distribution. Despite incriminating evidence, they are among the most vulnerable and many people of color, the older people, and frontline health workers. Not to mention the fear of punitive immigration policies that expose them to the possibility of deportation, or the Public Charge rule that limits the chances of future citizenship for using public benefits such as accessing the vaccine dose. All of which poses a considerable threat to the adoption of the vaccine.
Undocumented Immigrants and the Vaccination Dilemma
For undocumented immigrants, the vaccine is a chance to live – assuring them of job security and a future generation. However, the over 10 million undocumented immigrants, mostly rendering frontline services in the country’s service industry and food production (as farm helpers, meat packers,) fear a backlash if they opt to receive the vaccine. According to experts, the vaccine will increase the level of herd immunity and reduce virus transmission. According to a USA Today newspaper report, the fear of possible discrimination by health officials and immigration policies can jeopardize the movement.
A fact that if left unaddressed, years of isolation and demonizing rhetoric by the Trump administration will force the group to hide and not get vaccinated, thereby increasing the percentage of at-risk groups in the population. In addition to more than 38% of Americans report they won’t take the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, according to pew research polls.
The refusal for vaccine adoption will threaten economic recovery efforts due to ill health, death, and continuing pandemic; a price too costly to pay to uphold demeaning immigration policies against unauthorized immigrant communities.
Maximizing the vaccination
To counter the potential fallouts, it is essential that deliberate steps, including following various recommendations, such as the suggestion to the press, by Manuel Pastor, the leader of Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California. Pastor advocates making the vaccine ‘fully available to undocumented Americans; otherwise, everyone is at risk.’ Correspondingly, the Executive Director of the Center for Migration Studies New York, Don Kerwin, shares that the lack of vaccination of a group because of their immigration status from a public health perspective would be inhumane counterproductive.
In New York City, promoting the free public health initiative – NYC Test and Trace Corps effort is pertinent. On June 1, 2020, to fight COVID-19, this resource that tests, trace, and care for all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status, is confidential and protected under the city’s health code. Under Mayor De Blasio’s administration, there is a commitment to securing and not linking the database to any law enforcement agency. Also, they protect people’s privacy by enforcing the rule of not asking intrusive questions about anyone’s immigration status during the testing process; neither will the public charge rule apply to any immigrant after receiving services. Encouraging diagnostic testing among undocumented immigrants is fundamental to combating COVID-19 and additional resources as found on NYC311.
Hence, prioritizing massive and targeted outreach efforts to encourage the turnout among marginalized and most at-risk groups/communities – Black, Brown, Asian and low-income communities, using various media platforms and diverse language is essential. Emphasize must be on targeting unauthorized immigrants, who are unlikely to seek testing, get the needed treatment if infected, or seek vaccination due to their immigration status. The extra effort might reach and persuade the undocumented immigrant community if implemented through organized groups and leaders in the community.
What’s more, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-New York City, presented legislation – that the New York state should provide no-cost vaccinations to all New Yorkers. This includes both American citizens and non-citizens who will receive a free vaccine, undocumented New Yorkers, people with temporary legal status, and other categories whose fate appears undecided.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also stands as an advocate for undocumented immigrants. In a CBS News report, the governor urged the federal government to implement a ‘fair and equal vaccination program through a letter addressed to the health secretary.’ Not one that is linked to gathering and sharing citizens’ details as this idea will deter undocumented communities from getting tested.
Hopefully, at the federal level, there will be an enforcement of the President-elect-Joe Biden’s views on the subject, as reported by The Hill news agency, during a gathering hosted by the National Association of Black and Hispanic Journalists’. He told its members that, ‘if and when it occurs, undocumented immigrants should have access to a vaccine, testing, treatment, and hospitalizations if it relates to the virus.’
As he prepares to assume office in the New Year, a much-needed endorsement message and right rhetoric of this kind will contribute immensely to the full force and holistic effort in taking the vaccine and improving the economy. The practical implementation of a non-discriminatory vaccination roll-out, supported by a positive legislative backed messaging, and everyone working together towards achieving full control of the virus will serve as a planned move towards getting our lives back and the success of every aspect of society.