Covid vaccine
Any vaccine in Lebanon cannot be administered directly by any political party and has to go through the Ministry of Health. The present minister, however, is an affiliate of Hezbollah. Image Credit: Gulf News

Damascus: A vaccine “race” is currently underway in Lebanon, as politicians compete with each other to please their disgruntled constituencies. Despite a severe two-week lockdown, described as one of the harshest in the world, the country is on the brink of a health disaster.

The number of COVID-19 cases as of Sunday were 317,836, including 3,562 deaths. Due to half-hearted measures during the Christmas holidays, more people died last month than they did during the previous year.

Hospitals are both packed and understaffed while people are pleading for ventilators, buying them off the black market anywhere between $700-$1,500, which is double their price.

That is topped with a financial meltdown that has devaluated the local currency by 80 per cent, along with a massive blast at the Beirut port last August, destroying half the city and killing over 200 innocents.

A race for vaccines

Last week, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said that he was trying to obtain a grant from Gulf states to purchase one million doses of the Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm. Although he did not say it, it was clear where those vaccines would be going, mainly to supporters of his Future Movement and the broader Sunni community that backs him.

Challenging Hariri within the Sunni community is Beirut MP and tycoon Fouad Makhzoumi, who announced that he also would be buying one million vaccines, without specifying if they were going to be Sinopharm or the American Pfizer. Meanwhile, ex-Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that he would be purchasing vaccines for the people of Tripoli, his native city.

Vaccines for Christians

Samir Gagegea of the Lebanese Forces (LF) is competing with Hariri for the same Gulf money, however, hoping to use it with his Maronite supporters. Competing with him for the heart of Lebanese Christians is Zghorta MP Tony Frangieh, scion of a leading political family, who said that he was going to buy Ivermectin for his followers, an anti-parasite drug that is administered to animals, which some believe is effective against COVID-19.

Any vaccine, however, cannot be administered directly by any political party and has to go through the Ministry of Health. The present minister, however, is an affiliate of Hezbollah.

“Lebanese officials seldom surprise in their intrinsic skills to redefine corruption,” said Joseph Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and a former Gulf News columnist.

Speaking to Gulf News, he said they have managed to transform a health concern “into yet another sectarian programme to meet the perceived needs of their respective communities. Politicising the anti-coronavirus vaccines and who could serve best. In doing so, they reaffirmed their divorce from the ‘State’, notwithstanding crocodile tears that Beirut was a failed political entity.”

Lebanese officialdom’s vaccination

The political leader’s drive began after the Ministry of Health announced on January 27 that it had purchased 2.1 million Pfizer vaccines with a down payment of $4 million. It promised that they would be given to front-line health workers and most vulnerable of Lebanese society. The first shipment of 250,000 vaccines is expected to arrive by the end of this month.

Minister Hassan also said that Lebanon was negotiating the purchase of an additional 1.5 million doses from Oxford-AstraZeneca.

President Michel Aoun added that Lebanon had reserved 2.73 million vaccines through the COVAX Facility, a global procurement system helping poorer countries combat COVID-19 by vaccinating 20 per cent of their population by the end of this year.

This week the Health Ministry also approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, after the Russian embassy offered to donate 200,000 doses.

But even then, that is still not enough to vaccinate the country’s 6.8 million residents, 1.7 million of whom are a combination of Syrian and Palestinian refugees while 400,000 are foreign workers. On January 27, the Health Ministry announced that everybody in Lebanon, regardless of nationality, will be eligible for the vaccine.

That has triggered an online campaign from young Lebanese affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) carrying the Twitter hashtag “Lebanese First.”

Meanwhile, a gradual relaxing of the lockdown will begin on February 8, in response to warnings of an economic collapse. WHO recommends that the infection rate holds for two weeks at 5 per cent before any country considers lifting lockdown. In Lebanon that rate currently stands at 21.8 per cent.