Lebanon is Slow to Vaccinate. Why?

Published April 29th, 2021 - 07:37 GMT
Lebanon is suffering shortage in Covid-19 vaccines
A Lebanese healthcare staff prepares a dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at the Rafik Hariri Hospital in the capital Beirut, on February 14, 2021. (AFP)
Lebanon covid-19 vaccine campaign is going slowly amid jabs shortage.

A COVID-19 vaccine shortage, vaccine hesitancy, concerns about the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot and limited registration by foreigners have slowed Lebanon's vaccination drive more than two months after it was launched.

According to the latest data released by the Inter-Ministerial and Municipal Platform for Assessment, Coordination and Tracking (IMPACT), more than 1.2 million people have registered for the vaccine, 90.77% of whom are Lebanese. Some 431,980 vaccines have been administered through IMPACT, with 152,121 people fully vaccinated so far.

Dr. Abdel Rahman Bizri, who heads Lebanon's COVID-19 vaccination committee, said about 6 percent of the population -- 4.5 million to 5 million -- have received the vaccine, with about 4 percent having taken the two doses.

"We are working with around 400,000 vaccines, as we have received around 40 percent of the projected plan," Bizri told UPI. "This created a lot of pressure because the Lebanese were very hopeful that the plan we launched will help secure a certain degree of immunity."

The COVAX platform has failed to deliver the number of vaccines promised, with only 10 to 15 percent received, Bizri said.

A first shipment of 33,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were delivered through the COVAX Facility on March 25. Another batch of 130,000 doses, which was due in early April, has been delayed.

Meanwhile, Lebanon has been receiving steady weekly shipments from Pfizer-BioNTech, with the last shipment on Saturday containing 47,970 vaccines, bringing the total to 439,920. That was due to a $34 million reallocated loan from the Word Bank in January to help Lebanon order vaccines for over 2 million people.

According to caretaker Minister of Health Hamad Hasan, the vaccination drive will speed up with the expected arrival of 1 million more of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and half a million AstraZeneca doses in June.

"Big vaccination centers will be created in the various Lebanese regions and will thus be able to vaccinate 5,000 people a day," including residents who were not able to register through the national vaccination platform so far, Hasan said Monday after a meeting with the National COVID-19 Vaccine Executive Committee.

Just before the AstraZeneca reserves were depleted, many who were hesitant at first to take the U.K.-Swedish vaccine started to show up at the vaccination centers in larger numbers.

"Of course, I was afraid because of all these reports associating blood clot to this vaccine, but I changed my mind," Abed Ouaini, 60, told UPI after he took the vaccine at the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut. His fear of being infected by COVID-19 and ending up in an intensive-care unit was greater than the possible side effects of the shot.

Hala Itani, a 56-year-old housewife, waited three weeks before deciding to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca. "I was encouraged by my husband, who took it before me and felt nothing," Itani told UPI.

The AstraZeneca doses allowed the inclusion of new priority groups to the vaccine rollout.

Sarah Khan, a 35-year-old host of a morning show at the London-based Al Araby TV, was among many journalists who set their fears aside and rushed to get vaccinated.

"I had many questions, but the experts we have been hosting in our program explained well that COVID-19 risk is greater than the AstraZeneca risk," Khan told UPI while she was being monitored for 15 minutes for any allergic reactions after she took her first jab at RHUH.

With a decrease in the positivity rate and in number of registered COVID-19 cases, Lebanon has witnessed a slight improvement in its fight against coronavirus, which reached a peak two months ago with some 5,000 cases and 60 deaths within 24 hours at some point.

On Tuesday, the number of COVID-19-related deaths dropped to 26, with 1,182 new cases reported in 24 hours, raising the total number to 522,763 cases and 7,197deaths.

Concerns were, however, voiced earlier this month by Human Rights Watch over Lebanon's slow vaccination campaign that risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, as well as migrant workers.

The international non-governmental organization, which cited lack of information, little trust in the government and fears of arrest, detention, or even deportation, said only 2.86 percent of those vaccinated and 5.36 percent of those registered to receive vaccinations are from outside Lebanon, even though they constitute at least 30 percent of the population.

"We are not discriminating. The problem is that many of non-Lebanese have not registered in the platform, and we cannot really include people in the vaccination program if they are not registered," Bizri said, noting that 5,200 Palestinians, 2,000 Syrians and 600 from other nationalities have been vaccinated.

He explained that the number of Palestinians who registered in the platform and received the vaccine is around 35 percent, a percentage "very similar to that of the Lebanese."

Bizri said he engaged in contacts with the Palestinian Embassy, concerned United Nations organizations, NGOs and activists to help refugees and migrant workers register for vaccination.

Moreover, all migrant workers, estimated between 400,000 and 500,000, will be vaccinated, even though half of them have illegal status.

The World Bank, which has been closely monitoring the implementation of the vaccination program along with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noted significant improvements in Lebanon's vaccine rollout.

World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha said efforts were underway "to continue to improve the vaccination drive and ensure fair, fast and broad access to vaccines for all."

"There is indeed a shortage of vaccine supply at the global level, and Lebanon, like many countries, has to deal with this," Jha told UPI in an email. "Nonetheless, efforts are underway to explore mechanisms to address vaccine hesitancy, to speed up enrollment of refugees and migrant workers in the national platform and their vaccination."

Asked whether any violation similar to the "parliament scandal," when dozens of parliamentarians received early jabs in the legislature in February, he said, "No such violations have been reported by the third-party monitoring agent."

Despite signs of improvement in the fight against COVID-19, Bizri remains cautious, saying, "It is too early to say that we have probably changed the tide."

"We have a very crucial month ahead of us with [the holy fasting month of] Ramadan, where people get together and at the same time, some regions are not abiding by any regulation," he said.

What he fears most is "a catastrophic scenario" similar to the one after Christmas and New Year's when coronavirus spread dramatically.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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