Although the government of Portugal has announced free access to the Covid-19 vaccine for immigrants (regularized or not), foreigners living in the country report difficulties in accessing the immunizing agent.
In support groups on social networks and in consultation with support associations, reports of foreigners having difficulty getting vaccinated are recurrent.
The problems were admitted by the coordinator of the working group on vaccination, Vice-Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. During a hearing in parliament this week, he said a special plan for migrants was being drawn up.
People in an irregular migratory situation are the most affected, but foreigners with up-to-date documents also report bureaucratic obstacles.
The biggest bottleneck for access to immunization – and to health care in general – is the difficulty of obtaining the so-called user number: the identification code of citizens in the national system of health (the Portuguese SUS).
At the start of the pandemic, the Portuguese government announced the temporary regularization of foreigners with pending requests with the SEF (Foreigners and Borders Service). The humanitarian measure was taken precisely to guarantee access, under the same conditions as a Portuguese citizen, to health care and also to the vaccine.
Around 223,000 foreigners were covered by the measure. Data by country has yet to be released, but Brazilians have been the most favored nationality.
The decree explicitly specifies that the current regularization process is already sufficient for “obtaining the user number, access to the National Health Service or other rights to health care”. In practice, however, this does not always happen.
The issuance of the user number is in charge of the local health centers, which check the documents of foreigners and assign the respective code to each. As there is no standardized procedure for this process, the registration number assignment ends up varying between each unit.
This is where many immigrants find themselves in a bureaucratic maze: they have the right to receive the immunizing agent, but they simply cannot make the prior appointment, which is mandatory in Portugal.
Even if the person is already in the age group covered by the vaccination stage, the auto-programming system requires entering the user number to complete the process.
Aware of the limitations caused by the lack of an identification number, the government in March launched a special page where foreigners without a user number can register to receive the vaccine.
In these cases, interested parties leave their name and phone number so that a manager can get in touch to schedule the vaccine. However, subscriber traffic is slow.
The coordinator of the vaccination working group recently met with representatives of various migrant aid agencies to discuss an effective way to integrate foreigners into the vaccination strategy.
“We are in the process of establishing a plan, and it is precisely through associations that we want to bring in these irregular migrants who have a certain mistrust of the process of making contact with the authorities”, said Gouveia e Melo, Tuesday (23) in audience with deputies.
Cyntia de Paula, president of the NGO Casa do Brasil in Lisbon, was one of the people present at the meeting. “The government has created a platform for those who do not have a user number, but what we are getting feedback from our community, and also from others, is that no one has been contacted by their intermediary, ”he said.
“But I thought it was a good initiative of the working group. They came to the associations to listen to us, to define a common membership strategy. From our point of view, the Brazilians apply, but they are not called, ”he added.
Until this Monday morning (28), Portugal’s health ministry did not respond to the question of how many foreigners without a user number have registered for vaccination – and how many have actually been vaccinated.
A 47-year-old delivery app driver, who is among those being considered for temporary legalization, cried as he reported the difficulties in obtaining the user number to the report and said he was very afraid of getting sick – he asked not to be identified.
In Portugal two years ago, the driver said he had already lost count of the number of emails and trips to the health center looking for the document.
A little more than a week before the opening of the vaccination for his age group, the hairdresser Pauliste Fabio Silva, 27, also in the process of regularization, is another who fails to obtain the number of users. He filed the order in January.
“I pay my taxes without ever being late. I am not asking for a favor, it is a right. Thank goodness I can pay for a health plan because I’m afraid that something will happen to me and I’m in my hands, ”he said.
The public health system in Portugal is universal, but not free. The government, however, subsidizes most of the final cost. Portuguese and foreigners with a user number can benefit from the co-payment, but those in an irregular situation are often charged the full price of the tables.
Although she has a valid visa in Portugal, Luciana Lopes, 48, has faced a veritable pilgrimage to obtain the user number. In Lisbon for a postgraduate degree in the field of communication, with a one-year visa, she saw her application repeatedly refused.
“I was given a provisional number for acute illness consultations, but this number does not go into the form to mark the vaccine. I filled out another form for those who don’t have the user, but never got a response, ”he said.
Luciana said that, noting that the vaccination was already in her 30s (she is 48), she even considered traveling to France to gain access to the immunizing agent.
“After many ‘kicks’ from the attendants, I managed to talk to a real angel who helped me. She referred me to the vaccination post and helped me by talking to my colleague there to finish my appointment and get me vaccinated, ”she added.
The willingness of employees more sensitive to bureaucratic difficulties has been decisive, according to several reports.
According to the president of Casa do Brasil in Lisbon, the organization tried to negotiate certain contacts with health centers, by sensitizing teams to the rights of migrants.
With nearly 50% of the population with at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 28.4% with a full vaccination, Portugal, which has around 10 million inhabitants, is now trying to speed up vaccination as a means of ‘stop a fourth wave of illness.
One of the initiatives to accelerate the vaccination rate was the possibility, from this week, of vaccination without prior programming in certain specific centers.
This Monday morning (28), some foreigners who could not program the vaccine via the self-programming system went to the unit which was supposed to inaugurate the new system.
The initiative has however been postponed and will not begin to take effect until Thursday (1st). In addition, the opening hours for this modality will be restricted and will only operate from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
With cases on the rise, Portugal recorded, this Friday (25), 1,604 new infections with the new coronavirus. This is the highest value since February 19.
Experts link the increase in infections with the rapid spread of the delta variant, first identified in India. More transmissible than the previous ones, the strain is already responsible for more than 60% of cases in the Lisbon region.