The South Asian governments must ensure that vulnerable groups are not excluded from access to Covid-19 vaccines, said Amnesty International yesterday, calling on the international community to enable vaccine production at the national-level to address supply shortage across the region.
As vaccination programmes have commenced across South Asia, people including slum dwellers, Dalits, ethnic minorities, daily wage earners, sanitation workers, garment workers and tea plantation workers, people in rural areas, prisoners, and internally displaced people have so far been denied access, it said.
Meanwhile, others including refugees and migrants have been excluded entirely from the government vaccine campaigns in many countries for now. With vaccines in short supply, most countries in South Asia have not inoculated more than six percent of their population with even a first dose. The efforts so far reached the middle and higher-income groups.
"South Asia's governments must ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines for everyone irrespective of caste, socio-economic or other status, race, or nationality," said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.
"The lack of access to vaccine supply in most countries across the region is a real and pressing concern that needs to be urgently addressed.
"However, this must not provide cover to these countries to unduly limit access to vaccines, for example, by not reaching out to vulnerable groups to tell them how they can get vaccinated. Who you are and where you live should not determine access to the vaccine."
The Amnesty International said many underprivileged communities across South Asia do not have access to smart phones and other mobile devices, which are required in most cases to register online for vaccines and where most public health information is disseminated.
Meanwhile, vaccination plans that have been developed by countries like Bangladesh for a holistic coverage of the population are not reflected in their implementation such as efforts to inoculate cleaning workers, unskilled wage earners and people in lower income groups, Amnesty International said.
Due to a lack of access to government plans and information sharing mechanisms on vaccine roll-out, a misperception among rural people that Covid-19 is a concern only for urban and city dwellers persists in countries such as Bangladesh.
Amnesty International called on national authorities to put measures in place, in collaboration with non-governmental organisations, to raise awareness among rural people about vaccine campaigns and the danger posed by Covid-19.
With vaccine manufacturing countries prioritising their own populations, countries across South Asia have been scrambling to place orders to meet national demands.
The situation has left hundreds of millions across the region unable to access vaccines for the foreseeable future, including groups such as Bangladesh's one million Rohingya refugees and Afghanistan's four million internally displaced.
Amnesty International called upon governments to fulfil their human rights obligations and actively support a proposal to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement, a global treaty governing intellectual property rights, which often restricts where, when and how medicines are produced.
"International cooperation is key to contain the spread of the virus and make the vaccine universally available as quickly as possible," said Yamini Mishra.