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Lebanon COVID-19 vaccine scandal exposes risk of working with a corrupt government

Makram Rabah

Published: Updated:

With few things to be optimistic about, the people of Lebanon were jubilant when the World Bank announced in January that it will be allocating $34 million to procure the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for two million Lebanese and non-Lebanese residents. This jubilation was not set to last, however, as Lebanon’s corrupt ruling figures once again failed to maintain their legal and ethical duties.

Days before the arrival of the first patch of vaccine, the World Bank underscored both its full commitment and that of the Lebanese government to the fair and transparent distribution of the vaccine which will ensure the no one skips the line, or so it seemed. The vaccine was earmarked for high-risk health workers, those above 65 years of age, epidemiological and surveillance staff, and people between 55-64 years old with co-morbidities.

A few days into Lebanon’s vaccination drive a scandal broke out, with Lebanon’s lawmakers and other high-ranking state officials – including President Aoun and his entourage – receiving the vaccine at parliament house, despite not qualifying as early recipients. The news unleashed an outcry from the Lebanese public and the World Bank who threatened to suspend funding.

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To add insult to injury, many of these disgraceful politicians tried to play down this flagrant legal and ethical breach, explaining that they were entitled to receive the vaccine given that they are public servants and adding that the scandal had been exaggerated.

Rather than biting the bullet and backtracking, Lebanon’s Minister of Public Health and Hezbollah’s cabinet representative, Hamad Hassan, cheekily declared that he had taken this so-called sovereign decision himself and to show “appreciation for the MPs’ efforts to pass an emergency approval law for vaccines in seven days.”

Lebanon Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzli was equally insolent when he launched an all-out attack against the angry public and directed his wrath against World Bank Regional Director of the Mashreq Department, Saroj Kumar, which he demanded be declared a persona non-grata for noting the Lebanese government’s breach of contract and utter disrespect of regulation.

Ferzli, a relic of the pre-2005 Syrian occupation who later rebranded himself as a poster child for the Iranian axis, flooded local and regional media outlets and had multiple meltdowns live on TV. Despite the comic aspect his appearances took, they all underscored the incorrigible nature of the entire political establishment, and that the vaccination debacle is merely the tip of the iceberg.

More importantly, the abysmal manner in which the ruling establishment across the border has dealt with the pandemic and the subsequent vaccination response shows lack of vision and above all lack of aptitude.

The preemptive measures, as well as the inconsistency in the implementation of the COVID-19 response plan, reveals a criminal negligence, not to say a conscious drive to discredit all government initiatives, and to force the Lebanese at large to resort to private healthcare options, which more often than not are part of the political elite’s clientelist networks. The Lebanese public’s frustration with the slow pace of the vaccination process will drive them to acquire it from private companies that the Lebanese state has recently sanctioned, a move which will generate millions of dollars to those who already hold power and wealth.

At the current pace and miniscule quantities of vaccines being administrated, and because the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only available option, Lebanon will take a few years until it reaches the herd immunity stage, as many of its population, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, are unlikely to get vaccinated. Palestinian and Syrian refugees who constitute around 1.5 million of Lebanon’s inhabitants are unable to get access to vaccines, although World Bank loan provisions have clearly mandated that.

If one is to disregard Lebanon’s vaccination scandal, and the political elite’s unethical nature, the real blame goes towards the international community and the World Bank, which has time and again bankrolled the Lebanese political class’s so-called development projects – many of which have been marred with a lack of transparency and outright fraud and corruption.

The World Bank and its Regional Director Saroj Komar is right to condemn the Lebanese government’s lacks of ethics but equally, all donor agency should bravely admit that they have unwittingly or perhaps maliciously contributed to Lebanon’s downfall by entreating its politicians never-ending empty promises for reform. The vaccine scandal should act as a wake-up call not only to the World Bank, but to any international entity that thinks that pumping money into the pockets of Ferzli and his kind is a sound idea.

Many of those who are engaged in international development truly believe that they are the last line of defense for the people of Lebanon, and thus are willing to disregard flagrant indifference of procedure and perhaps ethics. Yet if they continue in this naive approach, they are not only gullible good-willed participants in the ongoing slaughter of Lebanon and its people, but willing accomplices.

Read more:

Lebanon’s health ministry deems anger over vaccine line-jumping an overreaction

Lebanon receives first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines

Lebanon's COVID-19 violations prompt World Bank threat to deny funding vaccines

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.