A growing sense of hesitancy as Lebanon’s vaccine rollout stutters

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While governments compete to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19 as quickly as possible, shortages are spreading growing concern among the public across the globe. Only 1.4 percent of the total Lebanese population is now partly vaccinated, and 0.3 percent fully vaccinated.

Four weeks into the coronavirus vaccine rollout in Lebanon, 110,234 doses have been given, according to the latest data provided by the country’s Health Ministry.

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“I’m in one of the later phases of Lebanon’s vaccination schedule,” Hassan Malle, a 28-year old architect told Al Arabiya English. “For me, the vaccine represents a light at the end of the tunnel and a pathway back to pre-pandemic life, and I cannot wait for my turn to come.”

Lebanon's National Health Authority activated a plan for vaccinating the public, with the first phase prioritizing healthcare workers and those over 75 years of age. The second phase will target people over 50, health practitioners, and those who have asthma, diabetes, chronic heart diseases, cancer, and other critical health issues. The final stage will be open for all citizens and residents wanting to take the vaccine.

Lebanon received its first batch of 28,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech in February, with World Bank aid. In its first operation funding the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, the World Bank reallocated $34 million to help Lebanon start vaccinations, and said it would monitor to make sure the shots went to those most in need.

Amid some of the highest infection and death rates globally, Lebanon, to date, has hit over 400,000 cases, and more than 5,000 deaths, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

Lebanon has received the fifth Pfizer batch this week with an additional 36,760 doses. It will receive 92,000 doses of AstraZeneca arriving in Beirut next week via COVAX.

A potential electricity blackout and storage challenges

Lebanon’s caretaker energy minister warned the country would plunge into “total darkness” at the end of the month if the funds needed to fuel power stations were not secured.

“Lebanon could head towards total darkness at the end of the month if Electricite du Liban is not provided with financial aid to buy fuel,” Raymond Ghajar said at a government-held press conference on March 10th.

The Pfizer vaccine needs stored at an ultra-cold temperature, but updated guidelines from the US FDA state that the vaccine can now withstand storage in a standard vaccine freezer for up to 14 days.

The AstraZeneca Dilemma

While some countries have suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine over reports of dangerous blood clots in some recipients, Lebanon is expected to receive a batch this week.

“As long as the WHO still ensures that AstraZeneca’s jab is safe and that there is no evidence of higher blood clot risks, Lebanon will still receive the vaccine,” Oussama El Dbouni, an infectious disease specialist, and the director of the vaccination center at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, told Al Arabiya English.

The damaged confidence in the health system

The hope brought by the arrival of the first vaccines in Lebanon collapsed into anger as inoculation campaigns spiraled into scandal and corruption.

While more than 16 lawmakers and other Parliament staffers received the BioNTech/Pfizer inoculations at the Lebanese parliament during the second week of the national vaccine rollout, medical workers and the elderly are still waiting for theirs. This has prompted the World Bank to threaten to halt its multi-million dollar financing of the inoculation drive.

“I don’t have any hope of getting the vaccine anytime soon,” Hoda Touma, a project coordinator told Al Arabiya English. “I guess the rollout of the vaccines has been really slow with all the violations that have occurred so far which really aren’t so surprising. “While there isn’t much hope for the young generation, all I could hope for is for my parents to get the vaccine.”
Just days earlier, President Michel Aoun, his wife, and ten members of his staff received shots.

A growing sense of hesitancy

According to a World Bank survey, only 3 out of 10 people in Lebanon are willing to take the vaccine.

Many are hesitant to take the vaccine because they are either afraid of the side effects or do not trust the healthcare system in Lebanon to support, and deliver the vaccine safely. “I am really not looking forward to taking the vaccine; I might not go at all,” Bachir told Al Arabiya English.