BEIRUT: Lebanese politicians have been accused of jumping the queue for the coronavirus vaccine, with the World Bank on Tuesday joining a chorus of condemnation and threatening to suspend its multi-million-dollar backing for the country’s vaccination drive.
The controversy erupted after some MPs secretly received the COVID-19 jab in the parliament building — despite not being in priority groups.
Allegations of favoritism mounted after it was revealed President Michel Aoun and his wife were inoculated last Friday by a medical team sent to the Baabda Palace.
The claims added to widespread frustration among Lebanese over delays and breaches of the vaccination campaign.
World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha tweeted that if the allegations were shown to be true, “it would be a breach of the national plan.”
He warned that the bank may suspend financing for vaccines and support for the country’s coronavirus response.
“I appeal to all, I mean all, regardless of your position, to please register and wait for your turn,” Jha added.
The World Bank’s reallocation of $34 million has enabled Lebanon to receive its first two batches of about 60,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses this month. The bank had said it would monitor the vaccine rollout and warned against favoritism.
A number of MPs are believed to have received the vaccine inside the parliament building in breach of an established plan that requires individuals to register through a dedicated platform and then wait for a hospital appointment.
The first stage of vaccination rollout, which entered its 10th day on Tuesday, includes doctors, nurses and paramedics treating virus patients, as well as those over 75 years of age.
The MPs’ breach sparked a furious public response on social media under the hashtag #NoWasta (no favoritism).
Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the National Committee for the Administration of the Coronavirus Vaccine, threatened to resign in protest at the breach, but later said he would wait on an official explanation by Wednesday.
Less than two hours later, information was leaked to local media that Aoun, along with his wife and 16 people from his presidential team, was given the vaccine last Friday.
Jha tweeted: “This is not in line with the national plan agreed with (the) World Bank, and we would record it (as a) breach of terms and conditions agreed with us for fair and equitable vaccination. Everyone has to register and wait their turn.”
A leaked list of MPs who secretly received the vaccine showed that many were not in the priority groups.
Among politicians who sought to justify receiving the jab, Anis Nassar said he had registered through the platform and received a phone call from parliament.
“I was not aware of any of violation, and if a violation has taken place, I apologize profusely. Despite that I am not responsible for what happened.”
Parliament Secretary-General Adnan Daher claimed that the vaccinations were supervised by a team from the Ministry of Health and the Lebanese Red Cross.
He claimed the aim was to “help hospitals avoid overcrowding.”
However, the Red Cross said that it had no supervisory or operational role in the vaccination campaign.
“Our teams are present in all vaccination centers exclusively to assist or aid citizens of the age group 75 and over in the event of an emergency,” it explained.
Bizri later told a press conference: “What happened is a terrible thing and must be explained. The World Bank has said there will be consequences. The Ministry of Health committed this mistake and must explain it.”
He added: “This is discrimination.”
Doctors’ Syndicate chief Sharaf Abu Sharaf said that the vaccination rollout “has been slow, chaotic and far from transparent.”
He warned that without an improvement in the rollout, Lebanon “faces a great disaster.”
“We must accelerate the vaccination plan to reach herd immunity,” Abu Sharaf said.