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Covid-19 in Lebanon: Health workers yet to receive vaccines as MPs jump the queue

After Lebanese lawmakers were controversially inoculated, half of the country’s overwhelmed medical workers anxiously await their turn
A medic prepares a dose of the Covid-19 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at Lebanon's American University Medical Centre in the capital Beirut, on 14 February 2021 (AFP)
By in
Beirut

The death of a Lebanese x-ray technician and former paramedic due to Covid-19 last week has shed new light on the plight of overwhelmed health workers battling the pandemic in the cash-strapped country.

Tributes to Fadi Abou Hassan, with an image of him in Lebanese Red Cross garb where he once volunteered, have poured out across social media, days after it was revealed that the health ministry bypassed the country's rollout policy to vaccinate a handful of MPs.

'This is shameful. They are frontline workers who protect us,'

- Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the Doctors’ Syndicate

Abou Hassan was one of the half of Lebanon’s medical frontline staff that have yet to be vaccinated since the country began its inoculation campaign in mid-February.

“Half of Lebanon’s 12,000 doctors weren’t vaccinated yet, and it’s roughly the same among the nurses,” head of the Doctors’ Syndicate, Sharaf Abou Sharaf, told MEE. “This is shameful. They are frontline workers who protect us.”

Just 159 of 2000 Lebanese Red Cross workers dealing with Covid-19 cases have been vaccinated, the organisation's under-secretary-general, Nabih Jabre, told MEE.

Lebanon started its vaccination drive on 14 February after receiving the first batch of a total 2.1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the night before. 

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The World Bank, which funded the vaccines through an existing loan, promised that it would monitor the rollout alongside the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“No wasta [nepotism]” was often said by World Bank officials on social media to assure Lebanon’s disgruntled population, already reeling from a crippling economic crisis that left about half the country in poverty. 

The first stage of the vaccine rollout prioritises medical frontline workers and the elderly aged 75 and above.

However, 10 days later, it was revealed that 16 MPs were vaccinated in parliament, as well as President Michel Aoun, his wife, and 10 people from his team at Baabda Palace.

Many of those vaccinated were below 75.

fadi abu hasan
​Former Red Cross paramedic Fadi Abou Hassan reportedly passed away on 26 February after contracting Covid-19 (Twitter)

The World Bank’s regional director claimed in a tweet that funding for Lebanon’s vaccine rollout could be suspended. 

Even the head of the country’s Covid-19 committee was on the verge of resigning, calling what happened a “violation that can’t be tolerated”.

The following night, caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan said it was a “sovereign decision” the ministry made to thank MPs for passing a law that approves emergency authorisation of the vaccine back in January.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Hasan said on state television.

Health ministry under fire

“Why haven’t they [rest of the medical workers] been vaccinated yet? Believe me, I don’t know,” an outraged Abou Sharaf said, implicitly blaming the health ministry. “Of course there have been violations and mistakes.” 

Hospitals have been on the edge for some time. Doctors have been tirelessly working while facing shortages of beds, oxygen tanks, and other crucial medical equipment. 

'We could have had everything done in a week, but unfortunately the ministry declined and told us to register our names [like everyone else],'

- Sharaf Abou Sharaf, Doctors’ Syndicate

The country entered the new year with record-breaking deaths and infection rates after the authorities eased lockdown measures for about two weeks during the holiday season.

The head of the doctors’ syndicate said he was baffled when physicians who called the health ministry to follow up on getting vaccinated were told to talk to him to handle the matter. “We previously asked if we ourselves could secure vaccines for all of us in the health sector – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists,” he said. 

“We could have had everything done in a week, but unfortunately the ministry declined and told us to register our names [like everyone else].”

Lebanon received 60,000 Pfizer vaccine doses since its inoculation drive began two weeks ago. 

The issue, according to an advisor to the health ministry, was a matter of supply and demand. 

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“We asked Pfizer to send us a larger batch, but they couldn’t because of global demand,” the advisor told MEE. “Through [World Health Organisation programme] Covax we’re getting 300,000 doses from AstraZeneca. I think we’ll be far more comfortable once they arrive.” 

Lebanon has secured 6.3 million doses, which would be sufficient for about half the population, but it is hoping to vaccinate up to 80 percent of its residents.

While the country is in the throes of an economic crisis, it is hoping the private sector can fill that gap by importing Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines. 

“In March, I think we’ll be able to have all the doctors vaccinated and everyone above 75,” the advisor said optimistically. “It’s natural. This is a global crisis.”

'Seeing the results of failure'

China donated 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Lebanon on 1 March. While that will ease some of the pressure on the health ministry, experts remain critical of the country’s vaccine rollout so far.

Lebanese nationals and residents have always had a keen eye on systemic corruption and mismanagement. The international community has expressed its concerns on the matter as well after protests swept the country in October 2019 over Lebanon's collapsing economy.  

'The government, in partnership with healthcare institutions, businesses, and community members must step up,'

- Sara Chang, public health professional

It was unsurprising that there were fears of mismanagement and nepotism in the country’s vaccine rollout, and this is why public health professional Sara Chang says an effective campaign was crucial. 

“We are seeing the results of that failure now,” Chang told MEE. “Some healthcare institutions are booking appointments themselves rather than waiting for the authorities, where data is lagging and of poor quality, and much of the public remains confused and skeptical about the vaccine and its rollout.”

Chang has been tracking and analysing Covid-19 data in Lebanon since its first case back in late February 2020, and says that these failures are a reflection of wider problems in the country’s health sector.

“Deaths due to Covid-19 aren’t just numbers – they are years and lives lost,” she said. “The government, in partnership with healthcare institutions, businesses, and community members must step up, or else there will continue to be more suffering than hope.” 

Foreign funding at risk

Meanwhile, there have been broader issues brought up in the country’s wider rollout strategy, which has thus far excluded large segments of the country’s population. 

“Migrants and refugees are left out of the campaign. This is a breach of the terms and conditions made by the authorities,” CEO and president of international organisation Project HOPE, Rabih Torbay, told MEE, pointing out that migrant workers and undocumented refugees are obstructed from registering for the vaccine. 

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Torbay fears that these developments could jeopardise Lebanon’s relationship with the international community, which has provided humanitarian aid for the crisis-hit country.

“This sends a terrible message to the international community that has mobilised to support Lebanon, and risks jeopardising future possibilities for financial support,” he said.

Meanwhile, while anxiously waiting for thousands of medical workers to get vaccinated, Abou Sharaf has tried to sympathise with the MPs who jumped the queue and got vaccinated behind closed doors in parliament, but indirectly says that the health minister needs to be held to account for that decision.

“Look, I don’t blame the MPs who took the vaccine,” Abou Sharaf told MEE.

“People are scared of the virus, and a large portion of the MPs are older and perhaps have a chronic illness. But I blame those who let them take the vaccine before others, and they should be held to account for this decision and its consequences.”