Lebanese MPs defiant in face of vaccine criticism

The World Bank said Lebanon’s vaccine funding is at risk after MPs appeared to have jumped the queue

epa09033428 A health worker prepares to inject a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a nationwide vaccination campaign, at the Saint George Hospital University Medical Center (Al-Roum hospital) at Ashrafieh area in Beirut, Lebanon, 24 February 2021. The World Bank warned that it may halt funding for Lebanon’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign after 16 lawmakers and five of their staff members were vaccinated inside the Lebanese parliament building on 23 February, violating regulations which aim to keep the process fair and transparent.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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Lebanese politicians hit back at the World Bank on Wednesday, a day after the international financial institution warned it may suspend financing for Lebanon’s vaccination programme if allegations of cronyism are proven.

The controversy, which involved lawmakers jumping the vaccine queue, prompted several MPs to publicly apologise – but others remained defiant.

Deputy parliament speaker MP Elie Ferzli called Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank Regional Director for the Middle East, a “liar” and accused him of politicising the incident.

“Upon confirmation of violation, World Bank may suspend financing for vaccines and support for Covid-19 response across Lebanon!!” Mr Kumar Jha tweeted on Tuesday.

But the World Bank's spokeswoman for Lebanon doubled down on Mr Kumar Jha's earlier comments, telling The National the institution was committed to "helping countries provide fair, broad and fast access to vaccines to save lives" but was also prepared to take action in case of breaches.

“The World Bank confirms that if necessary, it is prepared to suspend financing for vaccines and the Covid-19 response across Lebanon, following reports of violations of the National Deployment and Vaccination Plan and the legal agreement underpinning the Bank’s support,” Zeina Khalil said. She also said the world body would issue a full statement on the situation soon.

Mr Ferzli denied any breaches, saying his inoculation along with other MPs aged 70 and older took place in Parliament in co-ordination with the Health Ministry and under the observation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, which the World Bank asked to monitor the process.

IFRC regional spokeswoman Rana Cassou told The National two monitors were sent to parliament on Tuesday morning to observe the process and to report back to the World Bank.

World Bank threatens to cut Lebanon's vaccine aid

World Bank threatens to cut Lebanon's vaccine aid

The monitors were sent after the federation was told of the chosen vaccination site in the daily report filed by the Health Ministry, Ms Cassou said.

“We’re a neutral agency. According to our role and mandate, we only monitor and record our observations. The final call is up to The World Bank,” Ms Cassou said.

The World Bank previously said it was working with IFRC to ensure the transparency of Lebanon’s vaccination campaign.

But Tripoli MP Nicolas Nahhas criticised the World Bank’s reaction.

He said its officials ought to have communicated any concerns through official channels.

Mr Nahhas, 74, said he had fully complied with the programme’s criteria and registered to receive the vaccine using the official platform two weeks earlier.

He said Parliament Secretariat requested the inoculation of MPs on site for logistical and security reasons.

Others lawmakers were less critical of the World Bank, yet insisted they shouldn’t be accused of flouting the rules.

MP Yassin Jaber, a member of Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc who sits on the budget and finance parliamentary subcommittee, said his medical condition and the nature of his work justified the shot. He said it occurred in line with standard protocol.

“Four members of the subcommittee which are regularly meeting to study a new public procurement law have contracted Covid-19, along with several administrative staff, which reflect the high-risk exposure that lawmakers are facing,” Mr Jaber said.

Lebanon has received a total of 60,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses, in two batches, since February 13.

More than 22,000 vaccines have been administered through the national vaccination platform, with 60 per cent of the shots going to healthcare workers. But tens of thousands of registered frontline health workers and elderly Lebanese aged 75 and above have yet to receive the vaccine.

Lebanon has secured a total of 2.1 million doses from Pfizer through funding from the World Bank, which had approved the reallocation of a $34 million loan under the existing Lebanon Health Resilience Project to support vaccines for Lebanon. The remaining batches are set to arrive gradually this year.

Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the national Covid-19 committee, described the vaccination of politicians as “unacceptable” on Tuesday.

Mr Bizri, who asked for clarifications on why parliamentarians received preferential treatment, said the committee will meet this evening to discuss the matter.

After 24 hours of silence from the Ministry of Health's end, outgoing minister Hamad Hassan appeared in a TV interview on Lebanon's state-owned channel, TeleLiban, to touch on the national vaccination strategy and his role in liaising inoculations for parliamentarians.

According to Mr Hassan, the vaccinations were "not a violation", but rather a "sovereign" decision that he took in return for the parliament's efforts in passing an emergency vaccine law.

Based on the ages of the vaccinated lawmakers, he believes the ministry did not "defy logic" by allowing for their inoculations.

"This was not a mistake, but rather a loophole that gives us perspective for the future," he said.

He also admitted to discrepancies that took place in several vaccination centres, explaining that "rare are the countries that achieved just vaccine distribution" and asking citizens not to judge the vaccine drive so soon.

His justification was met with public fury as many criticised MPs for skipping the line and securing their vaccine doses ahead of priority groups.

As of Thursday morning, 77,774 healthcare workers were registered on IMPACT, the ministerial platform, and only 14,851 have been vaccinated.