The 80-year-old Lebanese musician in legal battle for a COVID-19 vaccine

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As a career musician who has played brass and wind instruments for most of his life, Joseph al-Hajj, 80, was particularly anxious to protect his most precious asset – his lungs – when the coronavirus swept into Lebanon last year.

Hunkered down in his modest home in the mountains for months on end, Hajj said he pinned his hopes on the global race to develop a vaccine against the respiratory disease.

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So last month, when he saw lawmakers younger than himself jumping the vaccination queue, he felt impelled to fight for his right to be vaccinated -- filing suit against the health ministry with help from his son, a lawyer.

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In a nation where corruption and state mismanagement are widely blamed for causing a socioeconomic crisis, Hajj said his patience snapped when he read about the MPs’ vaccinations, which violated the terms of the national immunization plan that prioritized the over-75s.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m very upset,” Hajj said, sitting in his sunny garden in Mtein, which lies about 30 km (18 miles) northeast of the capital, Beirut.

“I’ve been waiting, waiting to go out again and play at parties and bring people together,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying he decided to go to the courts because “we had no confidence in the state anymore and I want my rights.”

Joseph al-Hajj poses for a picture with his son, Fadi, at their family house in Mtein, Lebanon on March 6, 2021. (Thomson Reuters Foundation/Timour Azhari)
Joseph al-Hajj poses for a picture with his son, Fadi, at their family house in Mtein, Lebanon on March 6, 2021. (Thomson Reuters Foundation/Timour Azhari)

But in what Hajj’s son, Fadi, called a “small victory for accountability”, a judge ordered the ministry last week to vaccinate him within 48 hours, saying it had violated his right to life and health as well as the principle of equal access.

“When politicians protect the perpetrators and are this shameless, there is only one authority where you can seek refuge: the judiciary,” said Fadi al-Hajj.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan has defended the early vaccination of the lawmakers as a “sovereign decision” and the ministry has filed an appeal against the court ruling.

It said it “does not discriminate between citizens, rather, it gives them all equal opportunities to access the vaccine,” according to a court filing seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The ministry, which said after the ruling that Hajj would be vaccinated “sooner or later”, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘We want to play music’

While he remains steadfast in his claims against the ministry, Hajj said he preferred harmony to confrontation.

The walls of the house he shares with his wife are adorned with portraits of him with various musical instruments, alone and with his father, also a musician who began his career before Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943.

One picture shows Hajj posing next to Betty Ford, the wife of late US President Gerald Ford, during a 1975 trip to the United States to perform Lebanese folk music.

In Lebanon, he played for Pope John Paul II during the first papal visit to the country in 1997, and later for late French President Jacques Chirac, for whom he played the La Marseillaise national anthem, taught to him by his father.

“I perform my duties as a musician to any party or person and everything else is the least of my concerns,” he said, adding that he had only filed suit because he believed accessing the vaccine quickly could save his life.

For now, his wait continues.

“I hope they give it to me soon,” he said. “In the spring, the flowers here bloom and we want to play music and have a drink.”

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