Aid group vaccinates migrants as France expands virus pass

 Vaccination rates are picking up again in France as the government requires a virus pass for more and more activities — but social workers worry that the measure will further marginalise migrants and other poor populations.

So aid group Doctors Without Borders has set up a tent this summer in northeast Paris to vaccinate migrants, homeless people and others without access to state or private health insurance. Aid groups are carrying out similar actions in other countries, too.

“People think that these people wouldn't need a vaccine passport,” Cristiana Castro, who oversees Doctors Without Borders'' COVID operations in France, told The Associated Press. But “they often need to access public places for housing, administrative processes, and they worry that one day the passport would be required to access those, and it creates a lot of anxiety.”

A line of about 30 people had already started to form when the tents opened Thursday, most of them migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan African countries. Many of them arrived only recently in France.

“I'm feeling good because today I'm getting the COVID vaccine, and after I'll feel safe,” Mdamasud Parves, a migrant from Bangladesh who arrived six months ago, told the AP. Doctors Without Borders gave Parves his first shot of a Pfizer vacine, and an appointment for the second dose in three weeks.

Since President Emmanuel Macron's announcement on July 12 that a “health pass” would be needed in restaurants, trains and many other places around France, the vaccination rate at the Doctors Without Borders tent site has risen from about 25 people to 120 people a day.

To get the health pass, people must be fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative test or recent recovery from the virus.

The pandemic has hit migrants and the poor especially hard around the world, and France is no exception. More than twice as many people born abroad died in 2020 as those born in France, according to the national statistics agency, a number attributed to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 pandemic on less well-off populations.

Castro said Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, is trying to target people living in precarious conditions, finding people at food banks, homeless shelters, housing facilities for migrants, women's health centers.

She said migrants generally see vaccines positively, and have questions and fears similar to the general population.

The aid workers initially worried that not a lot of people would come back for the second dose, given that they don't have regular places to stay and are sometimes rounded up by police. The only single-dose vaccine available, by Johnson & Johnson, isn't authorised in France for those under 55, so that's not an option for operations like this one.

“But it's a population that wants vaccines, in spite of some fears,” she said. “So we have a good rate of people coming back.”

France has among the world's highest virus-related death tolls, at more than 111,000 lives lost, and infections and virus hospitalisations are now on the rise again.

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