BEIRUT – The World Bank threatened Tuesday to suspend financing for coronavirus vaccines in Lebanon as it investigated suspected favoritism amid accusations that lawmakers were inoculated in parliament without prior approval.
A top Lebanese official supervising the vaccine rollout called it “outrageous” and threatened to step down amid an outcry on social media by Lebanese deeply mistrustful of their notoriously corrupt politicians.
The World Bank is a major financier of Lebanon’s coronavirus campaign and has approved $34 million to pay for vaccines for 2 million people. Suspending its assistance would have grave implications for the cash-strapped government, which is going through an unprecedented financial and economic crisis and reliant on foreign assistance.
The vaccination campaign began Feb. 14 and Lebanon has so far received nearly 60,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have signed an agreement for independent monitoring of the coronavirus vaccination campaign in Lebanon. Decades of corruption and mismanagement have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse.
“There were many violations that took place at vaccination centers,” said Sharaf Abu Sharaf, president of Lebanese Order of Physicians. He said the violations included vaccinating people who were not registered or not included in the first phase of the campaign.
Lebanese had been expecting the vaccine rollout to be riddled with corruption and violations, but news of the vaccination of lawmakers as a political group at a building used by the legislature provoked fresh outrage among the country's population Monday.
Abdul Rahman Bizri, who heads the committee supervising the vaccination campaign, had planned to resign in protest Tuesday but changed his mind later, saying his committee will hold a meeting Wednesday to follow up the case.
He demanded an explanation from the legislature.
“What happened today is outrageous and should not be repeated,” Bizri said. “There is no political priority.”
Bizri said the national vaccine plan requires people to get the shots at predetermined centers without favoritism, adding that before he held the news conference he discussed the matter with the regional director of the World Bank.
“Everyone has to register and wait for their turn! #nowasta,” the World Bank’s regional director, Saroj Kumar Jha, tweeted earlier. He used a Lebanese term meaning there should not be nepotism.
Parliament's secretary general, Adnan Daher, was quoted by state media as denying the 16 legislators had jumped the line, which prioritizes medical workers and residents over 75 years old. Daher said all of the legislators who received an inoculation had registered and were properly in line.
Some of the legislators inoculated Tuesday are younger than 75, according to names leaked to local media, including Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli who is 71. Ferzli said in a tweet that he registered to take the vaccine in late January.
In January, Lebanon’s government launched a digital coronavirus vaccination registration platform for residents of the nation.
Later on Tuesday, a statement issued by the presidency said President Michel Aoun, 86, as well as his wife and 10 people from their entourage, also received their vaccines in line with the online vaccination platform.
The World Bank “may suspend financing for vaccines and support for COVID19 response across Lebanon!!” Jha tweeted earlier Tuesday. “I appeal to all, I mean all, regardless of your position, to please register and wait for your turn.”
Jha said the vaccination plan “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.”
Lebanon, a country of 6 million people including a million Syrian refugees, has registered more than 356,000 coronavirus cases and 4,387 deaths since the first case was registered in February last year.
A recent surge in cases has overwhelmed hospitals already struggling to cope amid the country's severe financial crisis.