A nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at the vaccination center set up at the Cabanas Institute in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico, on March 21, 2021. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz / AFP) (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Americas: States can defeat COVID-19 by adopting vaccination plans in line with 10 human rights obligations

Governments across Latin America and the Caribbean must prioritize high risk groups for COVID-19 vaccination and ensure complete transparency in the design and implementation of their vaccination plans and their dealings with pharmaceutical companies, said Amnesty International in a new report released today. Vaccines in the Americas: Ten Human Rights Musts to ensure health for all examines the vaccination rollout in 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and outlines 10 key recommendations for governments and companies.

“The commencement of vaccination against COVID-19 has brought hope to a region that was already experiencing multiple human rights crises, many of which have since been exacerbated by the pandemic. A year on from the beginning of lockdowns in Latin America and the Caribbean, governments must use vaccination as an opportunity to bridge inequalities, not widen them,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

With several countries in the region holding presidential or midterm elections in 2021, the report warns that political pressures and corruption could impact access to vaccines and the universal right to health. It also calls on governments to consult widely when designing their vaccine plans and ensure that at-risk groups, including health workers and older people, as well as marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, Afro-descendant people and people deprived of their liberty, among other discriminated groups, are not left behind in receiving vaccines.

“As ten countries undergo elections this year in a region where corruption in the health sector is commonplace, there is a real risk of governments using vaccination drives for political gain. Politicians must not use vaccines to reward supporters or put pressure on sectors of society that are critical of them. Health is a human right that must never be undermined by politics,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Amnesty International is calling on states to ensure access to information and transparency, as they are essential for adequate vaccination plans. Pharmaceutical companies, while supplying life-saving vaccines, have also undermined transparency in negotiations with countries in the region, potentially affecting universal access to vaccines. As well as conducting more than two-dozen interviews, the organization submitted information requests to 17 countries asking for specific details of the negotiations and the contracts that governments signed with pharmaceutical companies. While seven governments replied to these requests, not one of them provided full responses.

“In the context of a global shortage in vaccine supplies, transparency and accountability around how vaccines are developed, produced, purchased and distributed is paramount. Pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to respect human rights under international law which requires private actors to proactively take measures to avoid infringing on human rights, to share their knowledge and technology to maximize the number of doses of vaccines available, and work together to ensure that those most at-risk of COVID-19 in all countries can access life-saving vaccines immediately. They need to be part of a human-rights based solution,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

At the time of writing, 13 countries in the region had made public their national vaccination plans. Very few of those had consulted with experts, communities, or civil society during their design phase, with some of them overlooking at-risk populations. While all 13 countries’ plans prioritize frontline health workers for vaccination, Amnesty International has received reports from Mexico, Peru and Brazil that administrative or directive staff of hospitals could be receiving vaccines ahead of those on the frontlines treating COVID-19 patients. Only six countries had reasonably updated registers, disaggregated by gender, profession, location, and other data, on the number of health workers affected by COVID-19 during the pandemic. Several countries have severe shortages in terms of healthcare personnel, with numbers of doctors and nurses per capita far below the threshold that the WHO considers necessary for delivering basic health services in the world’s poorest countries.

“The shocking gaps in the staffing, registry and protection of the healthcare sector in Latin America goes to show once again how economic growth in many countries has not translated into stronger social rights nor more robust healthcare systems. A strong vaccination effort cannot exist without well protected health workers and health systems,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

While several countries have included Indigenous Peoples as priority groups during vaccine rollout, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico have made no mention of protocols for Indigenous Peoples in their plans. Indigenous Peoples, who comprise a high proportion of the population in several of those countries, have been systematically marginalized and excluded from public policies for centuries.

Furthermore, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica have either placed significant barriers for migrants and refugees to access vaccines, or overtly blocked their access, despite the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees having affirmed that including these groups in vaccine rollout is key to ending the pandemic. 

While many governments have publicly promised that COVID-19 vaccines will be free for all, only nine of the 17 countries in the report have officially confirmed this in their official plans or passed regulation to this effect. Meanwhile, members of the private sector in several countries have made attempts to buy up vaccines directly from developers, possibly creating parallel vaccine rollout processes that could undermine fairness for all.

“States must live up to their obligations to ensure that vaccines remain free at the point of care. Governments should prohibit direct private purchases by law and consider sanctioning individuals or private organizations that circumvent the national vaccination plan or otherwise unduly impede the state’s measures to ensure fair access to the vaccines. The vaccine is needed first by those populations who are most at-risk,” concluded Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Lucy Scholey, Media Relations Officer, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, lscholey@amnesty.ca

Read more:

Vaccines in the Americas: Ten Human Rights Musts to ensure health for all (Research, 22 March 2021) https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr01/3797/2021/en/