The woes of migrant workers to get vaccines and certificationAfter waiting for weeks to get jabbed, youths planning to head for foreign countries for work have to struggle again for paperwork showing proof of vaccination.
After a back-breaking two weeks running from pillar to post in Kathmandu, Yunush Malla finally decided to return to his hometown in Parsa Bazar of Rapti Municipality, Chitwan on Monday afternoon.
His latest trip to the Capital was something he would rather forget.
Malla, 25, was among hundreds of migrant workers who have been flocking to Kathmandu to receive Covid-19 vaccines so that they can fly to their jobs overseas.
After coming across news that migrant workers would be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination, he reached Kathmandu on July 16. Since then he had been running to different government offices—to get the jab and then to get certified of the fact.
“Since I landed in Kathmandu to get vaccinated, my life was confined to visiting government offices,” Malla, told the Post. “It feels like I have seen all about how everything works in this country.”
Nepali migrant workers’ struggle for vaccination, so that they would be allowed entry to countries they migrate to work, is a microcosm of the ad-hoc decisions of the government that affects the everyday life of its citizens.
Decision after decision, the government has made things rather complicated for migrant workers and put them through bureaucratic hassles.
“What workers have been going through in the last two weeks is nothing short of mentally torturing them,” said Swarna Kumar Jha, a migrant rights expert and an activist. “It all showed lack of inter-agency coordination and this is nothing new for Nepal.”
All of this started a few weeks back.
After several weeks of suspension of international flights during the second wave of the pandemic from late April, which had also disrupted foreign employment, Nepali workers may have gradually started going abroad once again. But the process has been full of hurdles.
Their plan was affected first with destination countries making vaccination mandatory for outsiders, including Nepali workers, and then limited flights and expensive airfares.
At the beginning, Nepali authorities first did not prioritise outbound migrant workers for vaccination. When they finally decided to administer them with Covid-19 vaccine, following persistent pressure from workers, recruiting agencies and migrant rights activists, they were allotted the Chinese Vero Cell vaccine, which only added more hassles to their migration plans.
As it requires two doses in a gap of four weeks and is not approved by several destination countries in the Persian Gulf, it was deemed impractical for migrant workers.
Days later, the government again decided to administer them with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But with people crowding immunisation centres and authorities worried that it would run out of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the government then decided to provide them with both Vero Cell and Johnson & Johnson depending upon their travel plans.
Malla’s struggles started with getting a vaccine.
On July 19, he reached Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital at Teku at 4am—hours before the facility opened.
“Even at that hour, more than 100 people like me had already queued up,” said Malla.
Eventually, when his turn came at 1pm, the hospital announced that they had run out of vaccines.
Appalled and angry, Malla with some friends, ran to a hospital at Kalanki after hearing that Johnson & Johnson vaccine was being administered for outbound migrant workers there, but there was no vaccine there.
The next stop was Manmohan Memorial Medical College and Teaching Hospital, at Swayambhu, where after more than 12 hours of running around since 4am, he finally got his Johnson & Johnson jab.
But Malla’s woes, like those of thousands of migrant workers, were not over yet.
As per the rules of the labour destination countries, which have made vaccination against Covid-19 a condition for entry, Nepali workers also need to get vaccination certificates verified by the relevant government agencies.
That meant they had to stand in queue for several hours to get their Covid-19 vaccination cards verified.
“I again reached Teku hospital at 4am. There were no government officials to guide us or even help us. Whoever we asked, they would simply say that they had no idea,” said Malla. “But I got the certificate at around 2pm on the same day. Although it was said that it would be free, we had to pay.”
According to Malla, he first had to pay Rs300 at Teku hospital. Later, they had to pay another Rs300 for another official stamp from the Health Ministry after going through the same trouble.
“After getting the first letter, many had even returned to their homes happily. We were assured that the verification letter would work and even if a QR code was needed as in the case of Kuwait, the Nepali government would take some initiative to solve the problem,” said Malla. “But as the first document did not have a stamp, those who had gone to their hometowns had to return to Kathmandu.”
More troubles lay ahead.
They had to get the same document verified again by the Department of Consular Services under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is where they had encountered most problems besides paying another Rs500.
“At the department, you not only had to stand in a queue and get the document verified. We had to fill out forms, go to the bank to deposit the money and then go from one window to another,” said Malla. “That took another four to five hours.”
Even after all of this, Malla is not sure whether the vaccine certificate would allow him entry to Kuwait as it requires the certificate to have a Quick Response (QR) code. Malla is among scores of other Kuwait-bound Nepali migrants facing this issue.
On Sunday, the government issued a few decisions aimed at making things easier for tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers who are desperate to report back to their jobs.
The Department of Health Services directed line agencies in provinces and districts as well as all the government hospitals with more than 50 beds to issue vaccination certificates with QR codes to outbound migrant workers and those going abroad for studies without any charges. It also asked them to depute
two staff members for the purpose.
Likewise, the Health Ministry asked hospitals that have been issuing vaccination certificates to foreign-bound Nepalis not to collect any fees from them as per the July 22 secretary-level decision which said such certificates should be provided free.
Also on Sunday, the Department of Consular Services, which had been attesting the vaccination certificates issued by agencies under the Health Ministry, said that Nepalis planning to go abroad are not required to get attestation from the department henceforth.
“Migrant workers and other Nepalis who earlier had to visit the department will not be required to get their vaccination certificates further verified,” Ganga Sundas, information officer with the Department of Consular Services, told the Post. “We have conveyed the information with Nepal-based foreign missions to accept the vaccination certificates issued by the Health Ministry and verified by the authorised hospitals.”
Before the latest decision of the Department of Consular Services, every day nearly 1,000 people would visit the office for vaccination card verification.
“Even if 1,000 people visit for the services, they might have been carrying more vaccination certificates for attestation on behalf of others as well,” said Sundas. “Now we are expecting a drop in the number of service seekers visiting the office.”
Although not requiring verification from the Department of Consular Services as well as other decisions announced by the government on Sunday are expected to provide much-needed relief to ever-impoverished and neglected migrant workers, migrant rights activists and even migrant workers say such measures have come too late.
“There should have been a one-window policy rather than putting workers through all of this trouble for more than two weeks now. If they were allotted vaccines, arrangements should have been at the vaccination centres to provide them with certificates and verify them immediately, which would not be a big deal if things had been planned earlier,” said Jha, who is also coordinator of the National Network for Safe Migration, a group of organisations working to promote safer migration. “Also, the vaccination decision was taken without considering requirements of destination countries. Besides, making workers pay for either vaccination certificates or their verification is simply not acceptable. They are only asking for proof from the state that they are vaccinated.”
Sundas, the official with the Department of Consular Services, said that the department could not stop verification of vaccination certificates as the decision had to come from elsewhere.
“We have stopped the verification process after the Health Ministry and Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre asked us to do so and we have informed Nepal-based foreign missions accordingly. Our department has shared a specific format of the certificate issued by government-authorised hospitals with foreign missions,” said Sundas. “Regarding the payment, it was a charge levied for attestation of any document.”
Jha, however, highlighted that such coordination could have been made earlier rather than when citizens have already suffered for merely getting vaccination certificates.
“It seems the government authorities take decisions and then correct them later after things turn to the worst. If potential problems are considered in advance, such issues would not come at first,” said Jha. “One authority makes a decision which clashes with those of another, ultimately affecting the general public. In the case of vaccination, the government should have made things easier to facilitate migrant workers rather than putting them through stress.”
It is migrant workers like Malla who have to bear the brunt of authorities not thinking things through and taking ad-hoc decisions.
“The government could have easily provided all of us with vaccine certificates bearing QR codes as it does not need additional budget allocation,” said Malla. “It does not need much effort either as the government had all our details online which we submitted for registering for vaccination.”
Even after all the troubles, Malla’s worries are not over yet.
As the government aims to provide vaccination certificates with QR codes from August 17, time is running fast for him and others, who fear losing their well-paying jobs.
Malla’s visa will expire on August 21—only four days after the government will start issuing vaccination certificates with QR codes. He just hopes that he will be able to get the QR coded document on time and he can fly to Kuwait before his visa expires.
“I got married only a few months back. My wife expected me to be home with her but I had to spend two weeks in Kathmandu running everywhere,” said Malla.
Malla had returned home from Kuwait after several years on March 8.
“I fear losing my job that pays me Rs120,000 per month. After several years of hard work and experience, I have gained this level of financial security. With the government’s casual response, I fear losing all of it all at once,” said Malla.