Lebanon kicked off its COVID-19 vaccination drive in mid-February and provided much-needed hope to a country desperate to resume work. A spike in infections necessitated a strict lockdown even though the people here, already afflicted with a multitude of crises, could least afford it.
The first recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were a popular Lebanese comedian Salah Tizani, 93, and Mahmoud Hassoun, the head of the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Rafik Hariri Hospital, which has been at the forefront in Lebanon’s battle against COVID-19.
The medical community heaved a sigh of relief as inoculation began. Dr. Firass Abaid, the CEO of Rafiq Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), tweeted his gratitude to health care workers, aptly, with heart emojis.
“Almost one year after RHUH received the first #Covid19 patient in Lebanon, and then hundreds more, our staff, deservedly, will be amongst the first healthcare workers to receive the vaccine. The best gift one can ask for on Valentine’s day,” he tweeted on February 13.
Lebanon has been under a string of strict lockdowns for almost a month to combat a rising number of coronavirus infections and deaths. Over 330,000 people have been infected with the virus in the small nation while more than 3,900 died.
Over 330,000 people have been infected with the virus in the small nation while more than 3,900 died.
Unlike Germany, the United Kingdom, and several other countries that were careful during the December holiday season, Lebanese preferred to party; some bars remained open until 3 am. The result was an uptick in coronavirus infections that burdened the already dilapidated healthcare infrastructure of the country. ICUs operated at capacity and doctors were forced to see the patients in the cars they arrived in. Hospital staff has been among the worst affected.
Geitawi hospital was fatally damaged in the Beirut blast six months ago. It has still not been fully restored even as the doctors’ challenges have mounted. 30 percent of its staff has been infected with COVID-19.
Dr. Robert Nejm at Geitawi hospital was among those who contracted the virus. He was back at work two weeks later, as soon as he tested negative, to attend to a flood of patients.
“One doctor returns from corona leave and another is tested positive,” said Dr. Nejm. “Our health care infrastructure just cannot cope with more numbers.”
A 24-hour curfew was first imposed from January 14 to January 25, but it has been extended. There is no date yet on when it would finally be lifted. People who were already struggling to feed their families are angry and frustrated. Some of the most impoverished in the northern city of Tripoli protested. Two died in clashes with security forces.
The inoculation has given some hope to the Lebanese – already grappling with hyperinflation and a collapsed economy – that they might soon be able to resume work at some point.
The bankrupt government has been aided by the World Bank which provided US$34 million to fund vaccines for more than 2 million of the 6 million people in the country.
Lebanon’s health ministry ordered 2.1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and received the first tranche of 28,500 doses on February 13. The bankrupt government has been aided by the World Bank which provided US$34 million to fund vaccines for more than 2 million of the 6 million people in the country.
“This is the first World Bank-financed operation to fund the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines,” the World Bank said in a statement.
Lebanon has also signed a deal with AstraZeneca to procure 4 million-plus vaccines; 2.73 million of these would be donated through COVAX—the World Health organization’s initiative to make vaccines available for developing nations.
Polina Vasilenko, a Russian expert, told Inside Arabia that Lebanon has also asked Russia to donate 200,000 doses of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, but has not yet heard an answer from the Kremlin.
Lebanon has also expressed interest in the Chinese vaccines from Sinopharm and Sinovac and aims to vaccinate 80 percent of its population by year-end.
But even as vaccination rolls out there are many concerns. According to a study conducted by a Beirut-based research consultancy, only 31 percent of Lebanese wish to be vaccinated. Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that so far only around 450,000 people have signed up to be vaccinated.
While conspiracy theories and a general mistrust of vaccines is impacting the global effort to vaccinate people, Lebanon has uniquely Lebanese problems, too. Hashtag “NoWasta” or “NoConnection” trended on Twitter in Lebanon as people shared their deep-rooted suspicion that the political elite and the rich may jump the queue and get vaccinated first.
Hashtag “NoWasta” or “NoConnection” trended on Twitter in Lebanon as people shared their suspicion that the political elite and rich may jump the queue and get vaccinated first.
The World Bank, aware of the problem, has decided to monitor the roll-out of the vaccine along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank’s Regional Director for the Middle East, called on everyone in Lebanon to “please wait your turn,” in a tweet. “Vaccine monitors are watching! We will register all violations and act per @worldbank procedures,” he wrote.
Doctors admit that the lockdown has helped but the situation is still far from optimal. They fear the numbers will quickly rebound if the lockdown is hastily lifted.
Lebanon’s government eased the lockdown on February 8 and allowed banks, supermarkets, and public transport to resume operations. Other trading sectors are expected to open in later phases over this month and the next.
“The aim of the lockdown was to help get the exponential increase in the cases to come to a certain plateau. In that aspect, it has helped,” Dr. Firass Abaid, CEO of Rafiq Hariri Hospital, told Inside Arabia. “There is already a plan to try to ease it gradually depending on the number of infections. We are in the first week of phase one and we need to see how the numbers progress before we decide what to do next.”
Dr. Abaid was cautiously optimistic and said that while the vaccination drive was moving ahead satisfactorily, Lebanon is a long way from being inoculated. “We have a very, very long process ahead of us. We still have to see what happens with virus mutations. Lebanon took a big step, but I still believe the road ahead is long and treacherous.”