Every week for the past three months, a 63-year-old homeless Croatian immigrant has visited a medical clinic next to Rome’s Termini station, seeking information on coronavirus vaccinations. And each time, doctors tell him that despite having multiple co-morbidities and having had multiple heart attacks in the past, they can’t schedule a day for him to get the shot.
“My heart is so weak that if I take Covid she will take me for sure,” said the immigrant, asking to be identified only by her first name, Vlado, for fear of reprisals. “I’m afraid.”
The Italian government says people have the right to be vaccinated regardless of their legal status. In practice, however, many undocumented and homeless people have been ignored, a fact that puts them at risk not only, doctors say, but the country as a whole.
The official explanation, in many cases, is bureaucratic in nature. Most parts of the country require people to submit a social security number on their online platforms to make an appointment for a vaccination day. But only three of Italy’s 20 regions accept temporary numbers given to hundreds of thousands of migrants.
And in a country where immigration is a very controversial issue, some people are wondering whether Italian citizens should not continue to be a priority, at least until vaccines are more readily available.
“The system has forgotten about migrants, but they are the most vulnerable in the country,” commented Dr Marco Mazzetti, president of the Italian Society of Migration Medicine.
Italy was the first Western country to be hit hard by the coronavirus. More than 125,000 people in the country have already died from the virus, and the vaccination campaign has started slowly, marked by dose shortages and strategic setbacks. It has intensified in recent weeks, with around half a million doses of the vaccine distributed each day. On Thursday (3), the country removed age restrictions and broadened the criteria that determine who is entitled to the vaccine. Officials say the increased supply means migrants and asylum seekers will soon be vaccinated.
But little has happened in that direction so far, according to migrant advocates.
Several doctors who work with migrants said they did not believe inaction was the result of intentional discrimination. For them, it is yet another symptom of the usual inattention to the marginalized.
Foreigners residing in Italy without a social security number, including diplomats and employees of international organizations, have also had problems scheduling their vaccinations. This week, the Italian Post, whose online platform for scheduling vaccinations is the most used in the regions, began allowing members of these groups to schedule their vaccinations. But she still does not have a date when she will do the same for migrants who are in the country illegally.
Some politicians include the issue of vaccination in the immigration debate.
When authorities in Lombardy, in the north of the country, announced their intention to include irregular migrants – without legal status – and the homeless in the vaccination campaign this month, members of the regional councils protested.
“I think of the entrepreneurs exhausted after a year of closing their establishments, of the supermarket cashiers still on the front line, of the young people who have lost a year of their life and their social life – all of them have gone through illegal immigrants”, Lombardy councilor Viviana Beccalossi said at a regional meeting.
She described the migrant vaccination initiative as “a slap in the face”. Lombardy will start vaccinating the homeless next week. But, citing an “ongoing national level discussion,” he said he did not know when he will be able to immunize foreigners with only a temporary social security number.
Doctors and social workers serving migrants say that by creating bureaucratic barriers between migrants and vaccines, Italian authorities are breaking the law, which guarantees essential medical care for migrants, and creating a major public health problem.
Mazzetti points out that many migrants are domestic workers.
“If we do not control the circulation of the virus among these people who come to us to help us, we will not control the circulation of the virus in the country,” he explained.
A spokesperson for the health minister said the government plans to vaccinate residents of shelters and migrant centers soon and that so far has not been done due to a lack of vaccines. According to him, as soon as the country receives enough doses, it will give the vaccine to anyone who wants it.
Various attempts have been made in the country to find solutions. Pope Francis has offered hundreds of doses to the homeless in Rome. And local health authorities in Rome and some other areas have told organizations serving migrants that they can call and arrange vaccinations for people staying illegally in the country.
But doctors at the clinic serving Vlado, run by the Catholic organization Caritas, said they called and sent emails, but were unable to make an appointment for him to be vaccinated.
Clinic director Giulia Civitelli said: “The government says it wants to vaccinate everyone, but it has to tell us how.”
A 48-year-old migrant from Moldova who works as a nurse’s aide in Verona, undocumented, said she tried to make an appointment herself to receive the vaccine, but was refused because she did not have a number social security. She was disappointed but not surprised.
“I don’t have a contract,” said the migrant, asking not to be identified for fear of losing her job. “I don’t have a number. I am not entitled to anything.
Translation by Clara Allain