Lebanon's caretaker health minister Hamad Hasan  vaccine covid
Lebanon's caretaker health minister Hamad Hasan administers a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a woman, at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, in Beirut, Lebanon February 14, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Lebanon is no longer a failing state. That is now history. The country has long hit rock bottom, collapsing from one low to another due to a variety of factors that includes poor government, corruption, nepotism, and a political elite that refuses to step down or take responsibility for failure.

The tiny Mediterranean state, once hailed as Switzerland of the Middle East, has failed to meet the demands of angry protesters, who took to the streets in October 2019, demanding better pay, more jobs, and rehaul of the sectarian political system. It failed at unblocking an $11 billion loan package from international donors, promised in France two years ago. It then failed at getting a smaller amount from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and thus was unable to save its once thriving, now collapsing banking sector. More recently it has also failed at identifying who was responsible for the massive explosion at the port of Beirut last August, which destroyed half the city and killed over 200 innocents. When Fadi Sawwan, the judge handling the case, accused two former cabinet ministers of criminal negligence, they swiftly had him removed.

Lebanon has even failed to form a government, a task that ought to be rather simple, although it has been six months since incumbent premier Hassan Diab stepped down. Against all odds, he continues to lead a toothless caretaker cabinet while his named successor Saad Al Hariri continues to quarrel with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Michel Aoun, over who gets to name Christian ministers in the new cabinet.

COVID-19 is one battle, however, that Lebanon cannot afford to lose. It’s a matter of life or death for the nation, and those who have been ruling it for nearly four solid decades.

The pandemic has already claimed the lives of nearly 4,300 people while more are expected to die if the country does not get its act together. Already there are 353,000 people suffering from COVID-19, waiting for admission at the country’s highly overcrowded and greatly understaffed hospitals. That is due to a variety of reasons, among which were lax measures during the Christmas holidays, which let to the peek in infections since January. During one weekend, more than 100 people died. Ventilators are a rare commodity nowadays, being sold on the black market for $1,500 USD — more than double their value.

Vaccinating 6.8 million residents

This month, Lebanon received the first batch of 2.1 million Pfizer vaccines, paid for in hard currency that Lebanon no longer has in its coffers. On February 19, the Health Ministry announced that it has signed up for an additional 1.5 million doses from Oxford-AstraZeneca. It also reserved 2.73 million vaccines from the COVAX Facility, a global procurement system helping poorer countries combat COVID-19, and recently approved the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V. The Russian embassy has promised to help, donating 200,00 doses.

If all shipments reach Lebanon as planned, then that adds up to 6.5 million vaccines, slightly less than what is required for the country’s 6.8 million residents. Of that number, 1.7 million are a combination of Syrian and Palestinian refugees while 400,000 are foreign workers. Lebanese officialdom has promised to provide vaccination for everybody, regardless of nationality, triggering backlash from some people, who are saying that Lebanese citizens ought to have a priority over Syrians, Palestinians, and non-Lebanese residents. Before that happens, we are yet to see how the distribution of vaccines moves forward, already marred by accusations of favouritism and nepotism.

Nepotism

But Lebanon always has been a country of surprises. This week, a 42-year-old Lebanese pop singer caused outrage after posting a video of herself being vaccinated in Beirut. She didn’t fall into the priority age group, and nor into the category of health works. Then came the stunning vaccination of several parliamentarians, although they too did not fall into the high-risk age group, and nor did many members of the president’s team who were vaccinated. The president himself, aged 86, was valid for a shot and he got it.

Politicising the vaccines

And if all of that were not enough, the issue of vaccines is being politicised by the ruling elite, with each leader trying to accommodate his respective constituency, transforming a national health concern into yet another sectarian conflict.

Saad Al Hariri and Beirut MP Fouad Makhzoumi are both struggling to vaccinate the Sunnis of Beirut. Hariri is trying to obtain a loan from the Gulf to bring 1 million vaccines to his supporters, while Makhzoumi said that he has already bought 1 million and obtained government approval to start distributing them, without specifying whether they would be Pfizer, Sputnik, or Sinopharm. Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati is doing the same in his native Tripoli, while Samir Gageaga is also trying to obtain vaccines for Maronite Christians affiliated with his Lebanese Forces (LF). Yet for any of those initiatives to succeed, they would need to go through the Health Ministry, currently controlled by Hamad Hassan, an affiliate of Hezbollah.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.