To the relief of foreign job sector, single-shot J&J vaccine being given to migrant workers

Chandan Kumar Mandal

In a last minute change of plans, the Ministry of Health and Population on Monday started administering the single-shot Janssen vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson to migrant workers. The decision comes as some relief to the foreign employment sector, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.

Kathmandu Valley residents aged 50 to 54 were also administered the single-shot vaccine from Monday with the 1,534,850 doses of the jab the United States provided in grant assistance through the COVAX facility. The single-shot vaccine is also being given to disabled persons, refugees living in Nepal, and health officials and sanitation workers at health facilities.

According to Dr Jhalak Gautam, chief of the National Immunisation Programme, Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be given to Nepali migrants if they are departing to labour destinations that have made Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for entry.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not available to migrants going to any foreign country, but to those countries which have made Covid-19 vaccines, including the Janssen vaccine, compulsory for entry,” Gautam told the Post. “They can get vaccinated after showing their passport and visa at the vaccination centre.” 

Stakeholders from the foreign employment sector have welcomed the government decision.

According to Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), an umbrella organisation of privately-run recruiting agencies involved in hiring and supplying Nepali migrant workers to foreign employers, the government decision will ease labour migration.

“Providing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Nepali workers will greatly help them. Comparatively, more destination countries have approved the single-shot vaccine than the Chinese one,” said Shrestha. “The single-shot vaccine will lessen hassles for our workers.”

The government had earlier decided to administer the Vero Cell vaccine, manufactured by the Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, to migrant workers. But since the Chinese vaccine requires two doses taken at a gap of three to four weeks, it had been deemed impractical for workers ready to fly abroad.

As labour destination countries started making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for entry for foreigners, including Nepalis, Nepal’s labour migration sector, which had already been reeling under the impact of the pandemic, had once again faced uncertainty.

Migrant rights activists and organisations, as well as recruiting agencies, had been calling on the government to arrange vaccines for outbound migrants and inoculate them on priority.

Besides, as the Sinopharm vaccine has not been approved by a majority of labour destination countries in the Persian Gulf, stakeholders had complained that the government had failed to sufficiently address the problems in the foreign employment sector.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman are among destination countries that have not approved the Chinese vaccine while Qatar has listed it as a conditionally approved vaccine.

Meanwhile, two labour destination countries—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—have not approved the single-dose Janssen vaccine.

According to Dr Samir Kumar Adhikari, joint spokesperson of the Ministry of Health, the single-shot vaccine will be given to migrant workers ready to fly to countries that have not approved the Sinopharm vaccine.

“Health workers at vaccination centres will also check if a worker’s destination country has not given approval to the Vero Cell vaccine before administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Adhikari told the Post.

But despite the decision of the Health Ministry to inoculate them with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there is confusion among migrant workers, according to Mahendranath Bhattarai, a spokesperson with the Department of Foreign Employment.

“Groups of migrant workers have been visiting the department’s offices and asking us to write recommendation letters for them so that they can get the vaccine,” said Bhattarai. “We don’t know what kind of letter we should write and whom to address it to.”

Another concern is that the ongoing phase of the vaccination campaign with Janssen will continue until Wednesday and stakeholders are worried that it may run out before all migrant workers ready to fly are inoculated.

According to Gautam of the National Immunisation Programme, once the stock of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine runs out, outbound migrant workers will be given Vero Cell.

“After the Johnson & Johnson vaccine runs out, Vero Cell vaccines will be made available to migrant workers,” said Gautam. “In that case, vaccination centres, where migrant workers can get the shots, will be fixed too.”

That will be later this week after more shipments of the Sinopharm vaccine arrive from Beijing. Of the 4 million doses of the vaccine Nepal bought under a non-disclosure agreement, only 800,000 doses have been delivered and three flights are scheduled for later this week to bring some 2.4 million doses. 

According to Shrestha, the recruiting agencies’ representative, nearly 30,000 Nepali migrant workers have taken the final labour permit to fly for overseas jobs, whereas job demands for almost 98,000 workers have been approved.

“Arrival of more vaccines in the near future and allotting Johnson & Johnson to outbound migrants is likely to provide some hope for recovery of foreign employment sector,” said Shrestha. “Nepali workers could not leave for foreign employment lately because of the mandatory vaccine policies and expensive quarantine requirements. More people will start migrating now.” 

According to the Nepal Rastra Bank data, in the first 11 months of the fiscal year 2020-21, the number of new Nepali workers taking approval for foreign employment decreased by 59.9 percent compared to the same period in the previous year. In the first 11 months of 2019-20, it had gone down by 12.4 percent compared to the same period in the fiscal year 2018-19.

Similarly, the number of Nepali workers taking approval for re-entry to labour destinations in the first 11 months of the fiscal year 2020-21 had gone down by 47.1 percent compared to the same period the previous fiscal year. The figure had also gone down during the same period in the fiscal year 2019-20 compared to the fiscal year 2018-19—by 31.1 percent.

Remittances make a crucial contribution to Nepal’s economy.

Remittances to Nepal stood at $8.1 billion in 2020, a fall of about 2 percent compared to the previous year largely because international flights were suspended for months due to the pandemic, according to a World Bank report.

The report said the contribution of remittances to the economy is equivalent to 23.5 percent of the GDP. 

The Ministry of Health and Population had been under pressure from stakeholders, including the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, to administer the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to migrant workers.

“The decision to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to migrant workers was made because of its practicality,” said Adhikari, the joint spokesman of the Health Ministry.

Published on: 20 July 2021 | The Kathmandu Post


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