Lebanon’s COVID-19 vaccination plan brings hope amid crisis

The first batch of Pfizer vaccines is expected to arrive by mid-February. Under the plan, priority categories for vaccination will include healthcare workers and people aged 75 and above.
Thursday 28/01/2021
A member of the Lebanese security forces checks a citizen’s documents at a COVID-19 checkpoint near the coastal town of Safra on the Tripoli-Beirut main highway. (AFP)
A member of the Lebanese security forces checks a citizen’s documents at a COVID-19 checkpoint near the coastal town of Safra on the Tripoli-Beirut main highway. (AFP)

BEIRUT--“I am still undecided about the vaccine. I fear that it might have side effects. I really don’t know what to do,” said Samira Abdel Malek. The 86-year-old falls within the first category of those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination under a rollout plan which is expected to kick off in Lebanon in mid-February.

While Abdel Malek is hesitant, Nada Sleiman, 59, is eager to be vaccinated despite mistrust in the government’s ability to carry out an effective and equitable vaccination process.

“As far as I am concerned I want to take the vaccine. But how can we trust a failed and unreliable government. I am not sure if the vaccine will be properly stored under the right temperature, or if after receiving the first dose, the second dose will be available and accessible,” Sleiman said.

“Will the vaccines be distributed fairly and according to priorities? Will it be available to those who have connections only?” Sleiman asked, adding: “Nonetheless, I will register for vaccination… I have no other option.”

Lebanon’s caretaker government announced on January 27 its COVID-19 vaccination strategy, which includes the launch of a registration platform to help people get the vaccine amid an unprecedented surge in the virus. The country has reached record-breaking numbers since the beginning of the year, recording over 5,500 confirmed new cases daily.

Health professionals have called for an open, inclusive and transparent process to placate citizens’ worries given the privatisation and politicisation of the country’s health sector.

The government has failed to provide a comprehensive strategy to manage the COVID-19 crisis, despite calls to inform people of  decisions made to halt the virus’s spread and mitigate its impact on mortality and morbidity. Instead, people have been left guessing and outguessing their policymakers about their decision-making process.

The first batch of Pfizer vaccines is expected to arrive by mid-February. Under the plan, priority categories for vaccination will include healthcare workers and people aged 75 and above.

“The vaccine should be taken without hesitation,” said physician Dr. Ali Sabeh Aion.” It is the only means to protect ourselves otherwise we will be heading to a catastrophe.”

Stressing the need to act quickly, Aion said, “We fear further mutations of the virus over which the current vaccine might not be effective. That is why the vaccination process should be carried out without delay in order to contain and eventually eradicate the virus before more mutations occur.”

The first dose provides between 30% and 50% immunity. This increases to up to 95% immunity once the full dose is administered.

The World Bank said it will support the vaccination process by allocating $34 million, in its first operation to fund the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines.

The fund will be used to purchase 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine supporting 750,000 people, and part of 1.7 million additional doses through the Covax programme benefiting 1.135 million people.

“The World Bank will be supervising the vaccine rollout in the country as per the financing agreement with the government,” stressed Saroj Kumar Jha, regional director of the Mashreq Department (Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Iran) at the World Bank.

Downplaying the risk of favouritism in vaccine administration, Kumar said: “One of the conditions we have in our support for the country on vaccine is that the rollout will follow WHO immunization allocation framework based on priorities.”

“We will hire an independent vaccine monitor to see how the vaccination program is rolling out and to make sure that the Bank’s financing of vaccines and vaccination is carried out exactly as per the international standards,” Kumar told a Zoom press conference.

The vaccination plan will include Lebanese and non-Lebanese living in the country, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, he said.

“We don’t want to exclude anyone because no one is safe till everybody is safe,” Kumar stressed.

Lebanon has entered a strict, round the clock lockdown since January 14 after recording a 70% rise in infections within a week, one of the steepest increases in transmission worldwide.

Beyond the human toll, the pandemic has exacerbated Lebanon’s economic crisis, its worst in recent history.

Economists hope the vaccination drive will help give confidence to open up the economy and help start the country’s economic recovery.