Lebanese lawmakers violate coronavirus vaccine rollout plan
By Sarah Dadouch and Nader Durgham,
Mohamed Azakir Reuters
BEIRUT — The head of the Lebanese committee overseeing the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine threatened to resign Tuesday after lawmakers were inoculated in parliament, undercutting efforts to ensure that only people eligible for shots get them.
At a news conference, Abdul Rahman al-Bizri, the head of Lebanon’s National Committee for the Coronavirus Vaccine, said the legislators had been inoculated without his panel’s approval and called this a violation of the national plan requiring people to get the shots at designated centers. He said the vaccine rollout must be done without favoritism.
“When we ask that all citizens go down to the vaccination centers and stand in line, then all citizens should go to the vaccination centers, with no exceptions,” Bizri said. He added that people would be dispatched to houses of those too elderly or sick to leave, but that favoritism for some citizens will not be tolerated.
Under an agreement between the World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Lebanese residents are required to get the vaccine in designated centers, where the eligibility of recipients is monitored.
Health-care workers, the elderly and immunocompromised people were given priority for the vaccine, according to a national deployment and vaccination plan adopted last month by the public health ministry and supported by the World Bank.
Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank’s regional director for the Middle East, confirmed Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Post that the lawmakers’ vaccination was a violation of the agreement. The World Bank has dedicated $34 million to Lebanon’s vaccination program. Jha said the World Bank has received a report about the violation from the IFRC, which is monitoring the vaccination campaign in coordination with Lebanon’s public health ministry.
Jha added that the World Bank will ask the government to explain itself and justify why the World Bank should not withdraw from the agreement. “We need to follow due process,” he said, “But our objective is to save lives and livelihoods. We want authorities to take corrective measures immediately and report to us.”
Although Bizri had earlier announced he would resign from the vaccine committee, he said he held off at the behest of colleagues. He said that if the government provides an inadequate explanation about the violation, the entire committee is likely to resign on Wednesday afternoon.
“We will MONITOR fair and transparent distribution to PRIORITY groups,” Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s regional vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, wrote in a tweet last month.
He added the hashtag “NoWasta” — the latter word an Arabic term that roughly translates to a mix of nepotism and connections.
“Wasta,” a common phrase in Lebanon and other Arab countries, effectively rules daily life: Those with wasta have a higher chance of getting access to services and privileges such as jobs, health care and reduced prison sentences. The hashtag “NoWasta” has spread in Lebanon, with residents hoping it would contribute to a legal and fair rollout of the vaccine.
“Since the plan began until now,” Bizri said, “we’ve noticed a few things, which are sometimes isolated [incidents]. But today I believe there was a breach we cannot stay silent on.”
The first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Lebanon on Feb. 13, under World Bank watch. The initial 28,000 doses, followed by 31,000 on Sunday, are part of a World Bank-financed project that aims to vaccinate 2 million people in Lebanon.