Lebanon is making a "call to arms" with a new mandatory vaccination programme starting on January 10, in an attempt to avoid the collapse of the country’s crumbling health sector, Health Minister Firass Abiad told The National on Thursday.
Earlier this week Mr Abiad announced a series of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 over the next weeks, during which thousands of expatriates are expected to return to their home country for end-of-year celebrations. Last year, Lebanon witnessed a surge in cases after the holiday season, overwhelming local hospitals for weeks.
From December 17 to January 9, 2022, unvaccinated people will need to provide proof of vaccine or a recent negative PCR test to leave their homes between 7pm and 6am.
Starting on January 10, all public sector employees, as well as education and tourism workers, must be fully vaccinated to go to work, or provide a negative PCR test result twice a week at their own expense.
“This is a drive for people to get vaccinated,” Mr Abiad said. “We believe the increase in Covid numbers should be taken very seriously.”
Covid-19 cases are currently relatively low, with less than 2,000 cases and 10 deaths in the past 24 hours, but have been on a steady upward trend for the past month. The Omicron variant has not yet been detected locally.
Lebanon’s health sector is collapsing as a result of increased financial losses and a brain drain caused by the country’s two-year long severe economic crisis. “I’m not just saying this to scare people, but I really think the system is on the brink,” Mr Abiad said.
The minister on Thursday announced a World Bank support programme for Lebanese hospitals aimed at reducing expenses for vulnerable patients via an existing loan.
At present, less than 40 per cent of Lebanon’s total estimated population of 6.8 million is vaccinated, despite high rates in certain large institutions. Mr Abiad said they reach more than 90 per cent in the army, nearly 88 per cent in the public health ministry, and 97 per cent at the American University of Beirut.
But vast disparities between regions remain. While large numbers of people in Beirut and its surroundings are vaccinated, rates in isolated regions such as the Bekaa and Akkar hover between 15 per cent and 20 per cent, Mr Abiad said.
The minister said that he hoped to reach a 60 per cent vaccination rate “as soon as possible” by boosting numbers from 100,000 people a week to 120,000 over the next eight weeks. “This is our aim, and let’s see if we are able to do that,” he said.