Advocating for Access to COVID-19 Vaccines: Workers’ Experiences

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A waste picker in Durban
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Christy Adeola Braham, Federico Parra

As we near the end of 2021, billions of people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 – widely regarded as the best way out of this pandemic, which continues to disrupt livelihoods around the world. Yet, massive global inequity in vaccine distribution means that many more, including a huge number of informal workers, have missed out.

Many parts of Africa, South and Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America have had poor access to vaccines. Low levels of vaccination - due to both inequities in vaccine distribution and vaccine hesitancy - increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission, hospitalisation and death, and can encourage more dangerous variants to develop. The majority of the world's informal workers live and work in these regions.

WIEGO’s COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy study has found that – when asked what workers would need from their governments to aid recovery – vaccination was among the priorities for survey respondents to enable them to resume their livelihoods legally and safely.

Informal workers are frontline workers who continue to deliver essential services during the pandemic, despite seeing their livelihoods and health severely impacted. There are 2 billion informally-employed workers globally and they are essential for economic recovery. If workers are not protected from COVID-19, then society is not protected – prolonging the pandemic and delaying and disrupting local and global economic recovery. Vaccination against COVID-19 is an investment in workers and will help to bring the pandemic under control.

WIEGO engages with informal workers on access to vaccination (including vaccine education), and we want to share some of their experiences here, so that we can learn from them and continue to support their struggle for vaccination in 2022.

Aline Sousa da Silva - President of CENTCOOP, Representative of the Distrito Federal in the National Committee of the National Movement of Waste Pickers of Recyclable Materials (MNCR), Coordinator of the National Secretariat of Women and Youth of Unicatadores, Brazil

We suffered a lot before we got our vaccine. We started to work together with the government to present an adaptation plan for COVID-19 prevention so that waste pickers could go back to work and would be considered an essential service.

We developed partnerships with some health organizations to test our workers for COVID-19. We carried out more than 1000 tests and we realized that many of the pickers were asymptomatic. After seeing the test results, we realized we had to get access to the vaccine.

We worked with lawyers to get waste pickers included on the priority list. Before the pandemic, waste pickers were never seen as a priority and we used the test results to show that we needed to be prioritised. After that, we were allowed to receive the vaccine and in just two days more than 1500 waste pickers were vaccinated. This was a very moving situation because we had pickers who had lost their parents, their friends, their family members to COVID-19. Many of them were crying, they were so happy. But they were in pain inside, thinking about their mother, their father, their friends and how they could have been saved with this vaccine if it had been offered to those who were a priority.

Wisborn Malaya - Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), Zimbabwe

When the vaccination program started in the country, the government prioritized those whom they were calling essential workers. We started speaking their language to push for workers and traders in the informal economy to be considered essential workers so that they would be allowed to trade.

We have encouraged members to be vaccinated through our WhatsApp platforms. We also used our social media platforms to communicate the issue of vaccination to our members and the general public — because we as workers in the informal economy don't live on our own island: we live in communities, we have relatives.

Our outreach has come with its own challenges because there are religious beliefs in the country which are totally against vaccination and some of our members belong to these groups. There is also fake news that spreads through the WhatsApp platforms, instilling fear in members. We also have the issue of the slow provision of the vaccine in some areas, especially remote areas where accessibility is an issue.

Carmen Britez - Vice-President of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and Secretary of Acts and Organization of the Union of Auxiliary Personnel of Private Houses (UPACP), Argentina

We worked together with different sectors to submit a request asking for vaccines. We interacted with the provincial authorities to launch campaigns and to register domestic workers for their first and second doses. Around the country, we put tables out on the streets for women to enroll for a vaccine, because many of these domestic workers have no internet access, they don't know how to fill out a form online to be able to enroll for a vaccine, and many of them don't really know why it's important and beneficial to get a vaccine.

We are quickly progressing on the amount of workers that are being vaccinated but we really depend on the vaccine shipments that get to our country.

Eva Mokoena - Chairperson of the African Reclaimers Organization (ARO), South Africa

We are educating reclaimers about vaccination because we found that most reclaimers don't believe that COVID-19 is real. Seeing people being diagnosed, that's when they started to believe. Yet, most of them don’t want to get vaccinated because of the symptoms that people get afterwards. So we train people to train others about vaccine hesitancy and on how to get registered for a jab.

Many are afraid because of things they read on social media and the government is doing little to educate people about COVID-19. We managed to sign up the majority of people with passports after the training sessions, but we are still struggling to help those who don't have IDs because the system doesn't allow anyone to register without proof of identity.

The government doesn’t care about us, we are on our own. We would like to have more support to spread the word because most of us are struggling, especially when it comes to reaching reclaimers far away. We need to help immigrants and others without papers and IDs so that they can get vaccinated.

Debora Contreras - Representative of Health Promoters of the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE) and Union of Workers of the Popular Economy (UTEP), Argentina

A warning sign that we had to do something around vaccination was when several colleagues passed away. We then started thinking about how to promote vaccination and how to counter misinformation campaigns in the mass media around this issue. We started working at the state level to get the flu vaccine drive back up and running, which had been halted because of the pandemic. At the national level, we received training regarding the vaccine. We also put together squads of health promoters to promote vaccination and adherence to safety rules. We created videos about the importance of vaccination. For the state to help us, we had to convince them that we were essential workers. This was a struggle, especially also for those workers without registration.

We also brought attention to the issue of health as something that needs to be addressed at a national level and we started receiving recognition from the state as health promoters. To continue our struggle for vaccination, we need to be supported as health promoters.

Reema Mishra - Member of SEWA Bharat and Board Member of SEWA Ruaab, India

When the pandemic came to a head in May [2021], our work was hampered very much as the disease was spreading very quickly. After that, when the vaccination started, people panicked that people who received the vaccine would die. After having the vaccine, some people developed a fever, so that led to fear.

After that, we talked within SEWA regarding vaccination and we showed videos to everyone to try and convince them to get vaccinated. We also called people for the vaccination, to prepare them. They were asking us to help them register for the vaccine. Some people told us that they tried and were unable to register. I also tried myself - I got the vaccine. The staff of SEWA then made a list of all the sisters with their phone number and names. Around 300 people were registered in that list.

These testimonies can be listened to in full in the recording on the WIEGO webinar: Advocating for Access to the COVID-19 Vaccine.

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Top photo: A waste picker in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Jonathan Torgovinik
Informal Economy Topic