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Access to a Covid-19 vaccine is a human right no one should be denied

Niveen Zam’areh is a midwife working in the Red Crescent Hospital in Hebron

ActionAid Palestine's Riham Jafari highlights glaring vaccine inequality in Palestine

With almost 70% of Covid-19 vaccines being distributed in the richest countries, there is clearly a glaring inequality gap in access to vital treatment to protect against the virus. But nowhere is vaccine injustice starker than in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

Israel has the most successful vaccination programme in the world, with 50% of the population inoculated, including those residing in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Yet most of the five million Palestinians living under Israel’s 53-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – including health workers and the most vulnerable groups – have been excluded.

This week, Israel started vaccinating Palestinian workers employed inside Israel and Jerusalem, who have Israeli work permits. While this will benefit some 120,000 workers and Israel’s economy, it still leaves millions of Palestinians unable to benefit from the vaccine programme, which should be available to them under international law.   

Meanwhile, Israel is desperately encouraging younger, less at risk groups to get the jab with offers of free drinks and access to bars and gyms. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even offered spare vaccines to the Czech Republic, Honduras, Hungary and Guatemala, while millions of Palestinians in oPt remain unprotected against Covid-19.

Cases of Covid-19 are rising daily across Palestine. We have more than 229,065 cases and over 2427 deaths, with 8,000 health workers infected.  Decades of military occupation have left our fragile health system and economy on the brink of collapse with rising poverty, unemployment, household debt and food insecurity. Access to vaccines for Palestinians is vital for our future development and stability.

I spoke to overwhelmed health workers at the Red Crescent Hospital in Hebron, who told of the immense stress and pressure they are facing. A paediatrician said the pandemic was both physically exhausting and taking its toll on medical staff’s mental health.

Dima Shawar, a pediatrician working in the Red Crescent Hospital in Hebron.
Dima Shawar, a pediatrician working in the Red Crescent Hospital in Hebron.
Riham Jafari/ActionAid

“I’m not afraid to contract the virus, but I am always worried about passing it onto my family and my parents,” she said. “Our workloads have increased as we cover the duties of colleagues who have been infected with Covid-19.

“Getting the vaccine will mitigate all of these stresses and pressures. We will feel safe when we treat our patients and return to our families.”

Access to a Covid-19 vaccine is a human right that no one should be denied. If Israel wants to be a true world leader in pandemic response, it must meet its legal and moral duty to ensure Palestinians are vaccinated as part of its programme.

In a recent joint letter to elected members, government officials and key allies in countries including the UK, EU, Canada and the US, international NGOs working in Palestine, including ActionAid, Oxfam, Medical Aid for Palestinians, Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children, called for Palestinians to have fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The letter was shared with governments, MP’s and key allies in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Norway, Australia, Belgium, Canada targets in the EU and diplomatic missions and UN agencies working  oPt. In addition, summary of this letter was shared with particular key advocacy targets in US.

As an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to ensure Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can access vaccines and Covid-19 treatments. Articles 55 and 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention impose a duty on Israel to provide healthcare where local resources are insufficient, and to adopt “prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. As UN human rights experts have recently outlined, the Oslo Interim Accords, signed in 1995, do not exempt Israel from these duties.

The international community must ensure Israel fulfils its responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Already we are seeing a situation where most Israelis are vaccinated, but their Palestinian neighbours are not, especially as Israel has introduced ‘green passes’ to give people who have been vaccinated more freedom from Covid-19 restrictions. This is leading to even greater restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, further limiting access to work, healthcare and livelihoods, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in West Bank and Gaza.

It is creating a divide between those Palestinian workers entitled to an Israeli vaccine and those who are not. As aid workers, we need to organise visits to some of the most vulnerable communities. We need to know that we are not causing more harm by spreading the virus while families face demolition and forcible displacement. Not being able to access vaccines will harm our ability to respond to humanitarian crises.  

All Palestinians must have fair, rapid and equitable access to vaccines. The current situation is a continuation of the discrimination and rights abuses our communities in oPt face under the occupation. But Israel has an economic imperative, as well as a moral and legal duty, to act differently this time.

No one is safe, until everyone is safe. Failures to make vaccines available to all, free of charge, will prolong the pandemic and the human and economic suffering attached to it.

By Riham Jafari, communications and advocacy coordinator at ActionAid Palestine.

The People's Vaccine

Our best chance of ending this pandemic is to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Rich countries are vaccinating one person every second while majority of the poorest nations are yet to give a single dose. This will lead to further loss of lives and allow the virus to spread and mutate, which threatens everyone.

We're calling for a People's Vaccine, available at no cost to everyone, everywhere.

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