By Flavia Nassaka
Jean Pierre Amudu, a refugee and an interpreter of French and English was bounced four times until he finally got his first COVID-19 jab at the Makerere University Hospital in April.
Amudu arrived in Uganda from the DR Congo in 2012 as a refugee and works as an interpreter, fixer and defender of refugee rights but inspite his high risk work he was not among the frontline workers targeted by the government to be immunized with the 964000 doses of vaccines that arrived in March 2020.
“I interact with a lot of people trying to secure bail and bonds, legal documents and helping refugees settle in, so when I heard about COVID-19 immunization open to others after the health workers and teachers category completed I thought it would be an easy sail through,” he says.
To his shock he was bounced four times until he presented an Identity card as someone who was doing work for the Refugee Law project of Makerere University. Even then the refugee Identity card issued by the Office of the Prime Minister couldn’t help.
Amudu on the fifth attempt was able to get the jab. He says he is only lucky to have finished his two jabs treatment as many of his colleagues remain confused and unvaccinated.
“I am the only one I know who has gotten it. They all got scared. Even my direct supervisor who is a refugee from Rwanda asked me how I got it. When I was going to get my second dose he told me please ask for me how I can get one. When I asked they told me it was out of stock. They could not come immediately”.
Amundu’s mother aged more than 60 years and in the right category of those supposed to be vaccinated has also failed to get a vaccine despite many attempts at different health facilities.
“The refugee cards were rejected in some places which is a violation of their human rights and right to health as a marginalised community,” said an advocate working with refugees.
Now the refugees do not know the authenticity of the card and what privileges it can give to them.
“We doubt this card. It is an identity card which is acceptable in some places but not others. I cannot use it to open a bank account or get me another phone line when it gets lost. Even for health it’s the same. For me they didn’t ask for it but others they said we don’t know it. Many service providers don’t seem to understand it”.
Amiable Serugo, a refugee from Burundi reveals facing the similar problems. The 53 year old who also lives with diabetes came from Kyaka refugee camp to settle in Kampala so he can earn a living. A nurse manning the COVID-19 vaccination centre outright rejected his card and has since failed to get vaccinated.
“I couldn’t go back. She (nurse) said I bring another document with a proper number. I don’t have,” said Serugo during the interview.
Dr. Alfred Driwale the head of the Uganda National Expanded Programme on Immunization (UNEPI), he said they are unaware why refugees were turned away.
Acknowledging that refugees needed to show their identity cards, he said they designed the programme to accommodate everyone irrespective of their nationality.
“In Uganda by policy we look at refugees as human beings who need services that Ugandans need. When we are planning we provide the services for all. Refugees only go into the population denominator of the host district and we have an integrated response for both nationals and refugees,” says Driwale.
He says their criteria was based on the integrated refugee policy although he couldn’t reveal exactly the number of refugees so far vaccinated.
Data at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimate the number of refugees that have so far received COVID-19 jabs total about 3500.
Up to 1.5million refugees live in Uganda and according to the country’s receptive open-door refugee policy they are supposed to access health services without any hustle just like the nationals.
But they now are crying out in advance that with the next batch of over 170,000 vaccine doses expected to land in the country on Wednesday, they should be given easy access to the drug.
They fear the surge in infections could sweep them out considering they are engaged in a lot of petty business especially vending jewelry and clothes in addition to hair dressing.
Arsene Arakaza another refugee from Burundi says this has already started to bite barely two weeks after the new restrictions were announced by the President.
Arakaza a university graduate who came to Uganda in 2015 says because he has failed to find an office job, he resorted to doing petty work so he can earn a living and also contribute money to his shared rented accommodation in Kisenyi, a city suburb that houses a lot of urban refugees.
He says his roommates’ petty business has slowed and he has since not got any call to offer casual labor.
“When we were arrested searching for jobs. The police said we should go to refugee camp. They think we belong to the camp. They don’t know government has allowed us to start businesses”, he said worried that they cannot stay at home or else they will die of hunger and yet they can’t access the vaccine.
Arakaza is unaware that refugees too are getting vaccinated now. He says him and his colleagues heard that special groups of Ugandans were being vaccinated first.
This information gap speaks loud says, Dr. Gloria Seruwagi, a researcher based at Makerere University.
Seruwagi who did a COVID-19 study earlier into the pandemic dubbed Refugee Lived Experiences, Compliance and Thinking (REFLECT) where they were assessing the refugee’s knowledge of Standard Operating Procedures among others says they found language barrier to be one of the biggest problems that refugees were facing with COVID-19 related interventions as communication was mainly done in English and Ugandan local languages.
She now recommends in absence of enough vaccines currently in the country, refugees just like Ugandans should ensure they correctly comply with other prevention measures of hand washing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds to keep the disease at bay.
Also, she says there should be translation of these public health messages to fit all as this has been seen to work whereby in their previous study, in areas where local leaders engaged translators, more refugees were seen to follow guidelines.
For jean however, access is key and he asks government to consider taking vaccination points to places where they can easily communicate with health providers.
He says a lot of them have already suffered with understanding the COVID-19 prevention messages which are largely run in English and the local languages. Even consent forms are not understood.
“I have not seen a single consent form of this vaccine in another language other than English. It would be very important if they are translated in the languages understood by these people. People of such traumatic past would need a counselor such that when they come, they ask questions about this and get the vaccines” said Amudu.