By the end of October, the Americas reported the lowest COVID-19 figures in over a year according to PAHO/WHO. Across North, Central and South America, overall cases and COVID-19 related deaths decreased. While the downward trend was also reflected in the Caribbean, as of early November, there were concerning shortages of hospital capacity reported in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.
More than one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the region and 46% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That is twice as many as in August of this year. At least 32 countries have reached vaccination coverage of 40%. However, 19 countries remain below that percentage and some like Haiti, Guatemala and Nicaragua have yet to reach 20% coverage.
In general, refugees, asylum-seekers and the displaced population are included in national vaccination plans. In Colombia, almost 129,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants were vaccinated by October.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s government launched a plan to strengthen vaccination coverage and reach a more significant number of children aged 0 to 12 years in the national territory, including the refugee and migrant population.
Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Uruguay have started administering booster doses, following the initial priority groups. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine to include children from 5 to 11 years old. Colombia started inoculating children between 3 and 11 years old with the Sinovac vaccine. In other countries in the region such as Chile, El Salvador and Ecuador, COVID-19 vaccines are already being applied to children between 6 and 11 years old. Cuba became the first country in the world to vaccinate children from the age of 2 at the beginning of the month.
In Haiti, thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be returned to COVAX due to the lack of capacity in the country to apply them before the expiration date (November). Only 0.6% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Across the region, restrictive measures at borders, originally put in place to prevent the propagation of COVID-19, are progressively being lifted. This could lead to an increase in the already unprecedented number of mixed population flows moving across the Americas. As the number of people on the move goes up, border areas become even more strained. Reports of rising xenophobia and intensifying tensions in refugee hosting communities become ever more frequent, which increases the protection risks for refugees and migrants already in a vulnerable situation.
The number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants rose to 6 million, out of which 80 per cent are in Latin America and the Caribbean – with Colombia and Peru hosting the biggest numbers of Venezuelans in the region. The efforts by host countries to provide regular stay continue to show positive outcomes. Colombia’s implementation of the Temporary Protection Status continues, with ongoing bio-metric registration and over 1.5 million people pre-registered already.
People in mixed movements, in particular from Haiti, are moving across the Americas. Most of them had settled in countries like Brazil and Chile and have decided to leave due to the socioeconomic crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of documentation. More than 121,000 people crossed the Darien jungle in their way to Central America and the United States, according to Panamanian authorities. The perilous journey puts people’s lives at risk. Three people lost their lives in a shipwreck in Acandí, Colombia, while countless others have perished in the jungle. An increasing number of women and girls crossing the Darien gap are reporting sexual assaults.
Consequences of Underfunding
Funding gaps in the COVID-19 response limit UNHCR’s ability to provide emergency assistance to the most vulnerable populations on the move. During the pandemic, refugees faced loss of livelihoods, evictions, and rising xenophobia compounded with a deep socio-economic crisis. Cash-based assistance provided a life-saving response that kept them from becoming even more vulnerable. The current gap shows a shortfall that limits the response in this area. Smaller, but significant gaps, would also affect UNHCR’s ability to procure safe shelter spaces and the capacity to support the States local and national responses in host communities. In 2021, UNHCR in the Americas adopted a two-fold strategy aimed at providing immediate assistance to cover the basic needs and protection, as well as promoting mid to long-term solutions with a focus on regularization and inclusion. The scope and success depend on the amount of funding the region receives, both in terms of humanitarian grants and financial loans to receiving States.