From: Alice Taylor
Albania’s Immigrants Left in the Dark over COVID-19 Vaccination Plans

Albania’s 14,000 foreign citizens have no idea if, and when they will receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

In recent years, the country has witnessed an influx of foreign residents. These include digital nomads, those working for NGOs and diplomatic missions, and pensioners. Most live in the capital of Tirana but there are also developing communities in Durres, Vlore, and Sarande.

Many have lived here for a number of years and more and more have invested in property, started businesses, and intend on calling Albania home forever.

Now, in the midst of the global pandemic, immigrants are left wondering if, and when they will receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For many, going back to their native country is not an option; COVID-19 restrictions, high prices, nowhere to quarantine on arrival, or lack of access to healthcare in their native country means that simply going back isn’t possible. In the UK for example, you need to be registered with a local GP to receive the vaccine which requires having a permanent UK address.

For those that have lived outside the country for decades, this proves problematic.

Foreign residents have started questioning if they will receive the vaccine in Albania, and if so when it will happen. Residents include teachers, medical professionals, pensioners, and those at high risk due to age or medical conditions.

Exit contacted a spokesperson for the government to ask if Albania’s immigrants would be included in the national vaccination program and if so, would they be vaccinated alongside Albanians according to a category, or as a separate group.

The response was that it was still being planned. No further information was given.

In an attempt to find out more, Exit contacted several of the larger embassies in the country. The British Embassy said they didn’t know if UK citizens would be included but that they would lobby the authorities in the case that they would not be.

The US Embassy didn’t want to answer the question as to whether they had discussed the vaccination of US citizens resident in Albania. They did confirm however that US citizens would not be offered any assistance from them in obtaining the vaccine in-country.

The Swedish and Dutch Embassy had no information for citizens, and the French and Italian embassies did not reply.

The German Embassy stated “For the moment, we have not received any information from the Albanian authorities to what extent the Albanian vaccination campaign will include foreigners residing in Albania. We are following the developments in this regard, also with a view to the vaccination strategy adopted last week by the Albanian parliament. Upon individual requests of German citizens residing in Albania, for the time being, we recommend German citizens residing in Albania to get in touch with the competent Albanian health authority.”

Katherine from the US who is retired and has lived in Tirana for almost a decade she stays at home to avoid catching COVID-19.

“I checked with my doctor and she doesn’t know anything about vaccinations for foreigners. She suggested I speak to the Embassy who said nothing has been allocated for citizens living abroad. I will try to travel to the US in Fall 2021 and get vaccinated then if possible, in the meantime I will wait.”

She added: “I understand the limitations here [Albania] and take responsibility for being in this situation. No one owes me anything, although the US is behind in taking care of our citizens.”

Sam, another retiree who has lived in Durres for three years said he would like to get vaccinated and is happy to pay for it but he is unable to travel to the US.

“I would like to get vaccinated so I would like to know when and how much it will cost, as well as where I can get it. I am not considering or able to go back to the US.”

Currently, Albania is struggling to get its hands on vaccines at all. The European Union refused the government’s request to include the country in the EU-wide roll-out of vaccines. This resulted in Prime Minister Edi Rama levying several strongly-worded attacks against them.

The COVAX initiative of which Albania is a member is expected to only bring enough vaccines for around 25% of the population. Rama has been desperately trying to acquire more through talks with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but delays in production from both companies mean that so far, they have not delivered.

Vaccinations did start in early January following a top-secret delivery of Pfizer vaccines that were “donated” by a “friendly” but nameless EU country. These were enough to vaccinate a handful of frontline medical workers. But once they have been used, no one knows when the next batch will come. This creates high levels of uncertainty for the elderly, sick, and vulnerable populations of Albania. Those who are systemically excluded from healthcare such as Roma and Egyptian communities and those in very rural areas are also at a heightened risk.

There are some 1.64 million Albanians living abroad, mainly in the EU, UK, and US. In most of these countries and states, vaccines will be given alongside citizens, based on their risk.

But Albania’s foreigners don’t want to skip the queue. Those that travel to their native country and are able to, will likely get the vaccine there. But for others, it’s not so simple. Some live on reduced incomes or are in high-risk categories and are therefore unable to make the journey.

All they are asking for is an idea of whether vaccination is something they can look forward to, along with a return to some semblance of normality.

An immigrant who preferred not to be named and lives alone said they cannot afford to travel and even if they could, the restrictions in place mean they cannot for the foreseeable future.

“I am high risk, I cannot travel. Even if I wanted to, I can’t afford it and there are no flights. I don’t want to take anyone else’s vaccine, I just want to know whether I will be entitled to it at some point! Six months or two years, just to know whether there is some hope would be nice. I don’t go out anymore, I haven’t socialised since March, I just stay here and try to be safe.”