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R4V Flash Update: COVID-19 Update, August - September 2021

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Situation

The COVID-19 pandemic has created tensions among host and hosted communities as the economic situation in countries acrossthe region deteriorated considerably, adding additionalstrain on communities’ ability to accommodate vulnerable Venezuelans. An R4V partner’s reports indicate that the loss of working hours and relating productivity in 2020 was four times greater than that recorded during the 2009 global financial crisis. Some R4V partners noted the ecnomic situation as a root cause of increased anti-immigrant sentiments among host communities. Xenophobic demonstrations and violence against refugees and migrants from Venezuela in the north of Chile and in Bolivia at the end of September, against a backdrop of increased irregular flows, caused grave concern throughout the region, including for R4V partners.

As of 31 August, Brazil reported almost 21 million confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 (about half a million active cases) and 579,308 deaths, while only 28.3% of the population was fully immunized against COVID-19. By September, however, 42.87% of the population was fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security published on 26 August the Ordinance 25/2021 extending the validity of asylum-seeker protocols and residence permits that expired after 16 March 2020 and which could not be renewed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, until 15 March 2022. On 14 September, the National Justice Council (CNJ), a body of the Brazilian judicial system, issued a nonbinding recommendation guiding federal judges to observe human rights standards in the adjudication of cases that may lead to deportation, expulsion or repatriation to the country of origin of refugees or migrants, especially those dealing with the exceptional and temporary restriction on entry of foreigners in the country during the COVID19 pandemic. Meanwhile, in August and September, the Federal Police in Pacaraima issued 12,659 entry permits to Venezuelans under Ordinance 655, which was the first measure to reopen the possibility of legal entry and to provide a means of regularization for Venezuelans who entered irregularly since the closure of borders in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Chile, after a second wave of COVID-19 cases that strained the public health system between March and June, health authorities reported that by September the pandemic was better controlled than before. In August, notwithstanding, national authorities maintained the curfew and the closure of borders for all foreigners without residency. However, following a sharp decrease in cases in September, the Chilean authorities announced on 27 September the end of the state of emergency enacted by Congress in July 2020. The Health Secretary of the Tarapacá region carried out mass testing in August of Venezuelanssheltered at Brazil Square in Iquique, where over 400 Venezuelans had found transitory shelter since January. Refugees and migrants testing positive were transferred with their close relatives to quarantine shelters. According to R4V partners, however, the sanitary residence in Iquique was operating above its maximum capacity of 220 people. The local health authority of the city of Antofagasta was reported to be conducting around 350 COVID-19 tests daily. R4V partners considered this figure to be an indicator of the number of refugees and migrants entering the region, and supported admission procedures for refugees and migrants, including by providing shelter and transportation, and assisted Venezuelans affected by the xenophobic violence in Iquique. Meanwhile, in September, national authorities started administering the vaccine to children aged 6 to 11-years-old and restarted vaccination of the 14 to 17 age group which was previously on hold. On 15 September, the Government announced that, as of 1 October, Chileans and all foreigners will be able to enter Chile through the airportsin Iquique, Antofagasta and Santiago, and that non-resident foreigners would need to present upon arrival a negative PCR test, proof of medical travel insurance, and would need to register their COVID-19 vaccination on the Ministry of Health’s online portal.

On 24 August, the Ministry of Health of Colombia issued Resolution 1255 to ensure that people without a governmentissued ID have access to the National Vaccination Plan, including Venezuelan refugees and migrants in an irregular situation. The Government confirmed that Venezuelans would receive vaccinations donated to Colombia specifically for that purpose, while refugees and migrants in transit without identity documents from the government of Colombia would be excluded from receiving these vaccines. The Presidents of Colombia and Ecuador announced their intention to open the border between the two countries, considering the advances in COVID-19 vaccinations in both countries. On 5 August, the Ministry of Health issued Resolution 1178, establishing the Temporary Protection Permit as a valid identification document for Venezuelan refugees and migrants to access to the General Social Security Health and Pension Systems. On 27 August, the Ministry of Health extended the health emergency until 30 November. In addition, as of 28 August, vaccination became available for people aged 12 to 17. Between 17 February – 5 September, 59,529 vaccines were applied to foreigners in Colombia, as the Ministry of Health and PAHO/WHO reported. Of these, 44,820 doses (75%) were applied to Venezuelans.

In Ecuador, the Ministry of Public Health confirmed on 19 August that 41.46% of the population had received the full immunization by end-September, and announced that the COVID-19 death rate had reached its lowest point since the pandemic began. In this context, R4V partners noted that refugees and migrants have been able to access vaccination centers without any documentation requirements and independent of their situation. It has been reported that the Canada’s CanSino single-dose vaccine has been applied in border areas, which has benefited especially Venezuelan refugees and migrants in transit. The GTRM (R4V National Platform) in support of the COVID-19 Vaccination Plan (GAI, in its Spanish acronym) reviewed its communication campaign and has been monitoring the barriers that refugees and migrants face in accessing vaccines.

The government of Peru extended the state of national emergency until March 2022 to prepare for a potential third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further to ongoing discussions reflecting the common interest to re-open the border between both countries, the Ministries of Health of Ecuador and Peru launched a binational COVID-19 vaccination effort, to support economic recovery in the crossborder region and better manage irregular entry points (between 80 and 100) along the border. The Regional Governor of Tumbes argued in discussionsthat given the difficulty of controlling the entry of Venezuelans, the reopening of the northern border would allow for an adequate management and implementation of protocolsforthe entry of people. In this context,the Ecuadorian government donated 336,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Peru, for people living in border areas. On 24 August, the Ministry of Health (MINSA) reported that around 140,800 doses had been applied to Venezuelans(81.6% of the total doses applied to foreign citizens) mostly in Lima and Callao (83.7%), whereas on 21 September, MINSA reported that COVID-19 vaccination uptake by Venezuelans had doubled in less than a month, surpassing the 304,500 doses applied (86.6% of the total applied to foreign citizens) again mostly in Lima and Callao (74.8%). Despite this progress, R4V partners have reported difficulties for refugees and migrants in accessing vaccinations, especially in regions where local health departments were applying access requirements which are not sanctioned by MINSA, such as holding a Foreigner ID Card, or proof that they commenced a regularization procedure with the Superintendence of Migration.

Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the Caribbean sub-region, governments including Aruba and Curacao reinstated curfews in August in an attempt to reduce case numbers. In September, the curfew was suspended in Aruba as the situation improved. The Delta variant was identified in Trinidad and Tobago in August while the country saw a decline in the uptake of the vaccine among the eligible population. On August 12, Trinidad and Tobago received 305,370 doses of the Pfizer vaccine donated by the United States, intended for individuals 12 – 18 years old. All refugees and migrants in this age group were eligible for the vaccine, and some received the first dose. All fully vaccinated secondary school studentsin gradesfour, five and six were anticipated to be allowed to attend in-person classes atschools as of 4 October. This, however, does not include refugee and migrant children, as they do not have access to public schools. On August 24, Guyana received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccines, a donation from the United States, to be administered to children aged 12-17 in schools only, including refugee and migrant children within this age group who are attending public schools. Reinstatement of restrictive measuresin Guyana strongly affected refugees’ and migrants’ ability to find employment and to cover basic needs. Requests to R4V partners for assistance with food, shelter and other essential items subsequently increased. Despite increasing COVID-19 cases, misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines has impacted Aruba and Guyana, hampering refugees’ and migrants’ ability and willingness to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic relaxed its state of emergency in September, which had been in place since March.

Mexico went through its third wave of COVID-19 in August, reaching record numbers: on 12 August, 24,975 new cases were reported in one day. Meanwhile, significantly increased numbers of Venezuelans presented themselves for admission to the United States after crossing from the land border with Mexico, but were often denied admissions on public health-related grounds (Title 42) linked to the COVID-19 pandemic: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 6,296 encounters with Venezuelan refugees and migrants at the border with Mexico in August, up from just 295 in January. Meanwhile, on 17 September, the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS), announced that it would vaccinate migrants with regular or irregular status, refugees and asylum-seekers who meet the requirements of the National Vaccination and Epidemiology Commission, i.e. presentation of identification documents or proof of application for refugee status for those with reglar status, and proof of “rootedness” in the country, such as a record of children enrolled in educational centers for those in an irregular situation. This initiative was developed jointly by the Ministry of Health, R4V partners, and other UN agencies. Cases of COVID-19 in Panama showed a downward trend in August according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The Ministry of Health issued Executive Decree No. 833 of 30 August 2021, which established that all travelers entering the country would be exempted from requrements including a COVID-19 test upon arrival and preventive quarantine, if certification of full immunication is presented. According to Panamanian officials, as of 29 September, 70% of the targeted population was fully immunized against COVID-19. Given the broad reach of the vaccine campaign and the decrease in the level of contagion, authorities announced a wider economic reopening, the lifting of remaining curfews in the majority of the country, and authorization of commercial activities at a capacity of 100%. Meanwhile, in August the Panamanian Migration Service registered 568 Venezuelan nationals2 in-transit through the country, who entered through the Darien Gap with Colombia, an increase of 89% from the 246 entries reported in July. In response to increases in irregular flows of refugees and migrants (including also many more Haitians) transiting northwards to the United States – with both population movements and the responses of governments linked to restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the Panamanian and Colombian governments agreed to limit the number of persons permitted to enter Panama through the Darien Gap to 650 people / day in August and 500 people / day in September.

COVID-19 indicators in the four Southern Cone countries improved over August and September. Restrictions in Argentina were loosened on 21 September and it was announced that the 1,000-person daily cap on returning residents would be raised to 1,700. In addition, the government included new exemptions for “family reunifications” with close relatives of Argentinians and residents who live abroad. In Bolivia, vaccinations continued to advance in the country and the President indicated that 90% of the population over 18 years old should be vaccinated by December. Bolivia began the application of the second dose of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine from 10 August. However, by the end of the month, Bolivia had a total of 3.1 million vaccines against COVID-19 "stalled" or not yet administered, out of 9 million received, raising concerns of new infection outbreaks, according to Ministry of Health. As of 21 August, the sanitary requirements for those entering Paraguay were modified to remove obligatory isolation for persons presenting a negative COVID-19 test and a vaccination certificate. The government of Paraguay reduced temporary pandemic cash transfers to people working in the country’s informal sector. In August, Uruguay recorded two consecutive days with no deaths related to COVID-19, and at the end of the month the country had fully inoculated 76.3% of its population. Uruguay began administering a third booster dose of Pfizer to tackle the Delta variant and the President announced that borders would be open by November for all vaccinated foreign persons. The Ministry of Public Health announced the development of a border contingency plan and the opening of a new contingency center to welcome people in a critical condition with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis who require quarantining. In contrast to the situation a few months ago, by end-September, Uruguay was one of the countries with the lowest Coronavirus case fatality rates in the world (0.38).