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Too many barriers to vaccine access for migrants, open letter states

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – An open letter to Minister Zach Churchill of the provincial department of Health and Wellness asks that the province remove barriers that may stop migrant workers with temporary status, refugee claimants, and others with precarious legal status from accessing a COVID-19 vaccine.

The province has already said that everyone who wants to will be vaccinated, including migrant workers and people without permanent residency status, and that a provincial health card isn’t required. But the letter points out that in practice there are still many obstacles that make getting the vaccine very difficult.

For example, the website where you make your appointment to get vaccinated still requires your MSI, but refugee claimants and migrant workers aren’t eligible for MSI. 

“People making refugee claims are used to being denied access to healthcare because they don’t have MSI. When they see that website they’re going to assume they don’t have access to the vaccine either. The message is not really getting out to those who need it. The process isn’t clear, it’s confusing,” says Gillian Smith, Settlement Coordinator with the Halifax Refugee Clinic.   

“Just this past week, a client emailed me and told me that she couldn’t get the vaccine. She’s a frontline worker in a hospital, and she was instructed by her employer to get the vaccine. But when she clicked on the link, she was unable to register, because she doesn’t have a health card, and her employer did not indicate to her that she could call a number to get a booking,” Smith says. 

The open letter is signed by groups such as the Halifax Refugee Clinic, No One Is Illegal Halifax/Kjipuktuk, the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax, and the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), as well as a long list of physicians and academics. 

“Making a phone call often has its own challenges”

The letter calls for targeted outreach to people without permanent residency status and migrant workers in their own languages, and to make sure that employers and frontline health workers are aware of the arrangement. The group also wants the province to make clear that personal information will not be shared with other government bodies. 

Making a phone call often has its own challenges, Smith says, and the group is also asking that accommodations are made for people who for instance may need the help of an interpreter.

The province must also send a clear message that there will be no information sharing with other governmental bodies such as the Canadian Border Services, the letter states. 

Many of the people we work with who are going through the refugee claim process come to us initially without status. We’re concerned about their access to vaccines because of the fear of interacting with government institutions, says Smith.

Most of the changes the letter suggests are small fixes, but will make a big difference, says Catherine Bryan, an assistant professor at Dalhousie’s School of Social Work, and another signee of the letter.

“We’re just trying to ensure that the people who are charged with managing the vaccination effort have a clear understanding of what is required, or not required, and that they communicate that effectively to people,” Bryan says.

“And the people themselves need to know that they can get the vaccine, and that it’s going to be free of charge. And also that they can do so safely, knowing that, if their status is up in the air, that they’re not going to be arrested, they’re not going to be detained. There need to be some kind of assurances, so that people feel secure as they’re accessing the vaccine.”

Good enough to work, good enough to stay

The requirements listed in the letter serve an immediate purpose, to get people vaccinated even if they don’t have a health card. But much more needs to be done, Bryan says,

“At the end of the day the province needs to commit itself to ensuring more equitable access to health care, regardless of people’s immigration status. Extending coverage to people who are not permanent residents would be a good start,” says Bryan. 

“Many temporary workers who come to Nova Scotia year after year are saying  that they would like to stay. There should be a mechanism to more effectively transition people to permanent residency, regardless of educational attainment, training, and all of those sorts of criteria that we tend to apply in immigration,” she says. 

“It’s that old adage, good enough to work good enough to stay. These folks have been in so many ways on the front lines of COVID. They’ve been doing the work to ensure that we can access food, that things are clean and sanitary, that we are cared for, that our elderly are cared for. They’ve been carrying the burden of the pandemic, and that needs to be recognized.”

Response from the province

On April 9, one day after publication of this story we received a response from Tracy Barron, a spokesperson for the province.

“We are in discussion with groups that support newcomers to understand their concerns and identify how best how to support their vaccine confidence. Based on these discussions we have been translating materials into other languages and ensuring all materials in English are written in plain language and/or with pictorial descriptions.  We are staying in close contact with these groups to identify any issues with the rollout. If it is determined that newcomers are not booking appointments, we will continue to explore new ways to increase their access to the vaccine,” Barron writes.

“Our frontline health care staff are prepared to vaccinate anyone with an appointment regardless of whether they have a health card or not. We take privacy and the protection of personal health information seriously. Information is only shared with other agencies as it relates to the immunization and this does not include identifying information,” Barron writes.

We have asked the province to comment on the issues raised in the open letter, and we will update this article when we receive the response.

See also: COVID-19’s impact on migrant workers adds urgency to calls for permanent status

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