World Bank threatens to suspend vaccine funding for Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) – The World Bank on Tuesday threatened to suspend funding for coronavirus vaccines in Lebanon while investigating suspected favoritism amid accusations that lawmakers were inoculated into parliament without prior approval.

A senior Lebanese official who oversees the launch of the vaccine called it “outrageous” and threatened to resign amid protests on social media by Lebanese deeply suspicious of their notoriously corrupt politicians.

The World Bank is a major financier of the coronavirus campaign in Lebanon and has approved $ 34 million to pay for vaccines for 2 million people. Suspending its assistance would have serious implications for the cashless government, which is experiencing an unprecedented financial and economic crisis and depends on foreign aid.

The vaccination campaign started on February 14 and Lebanon has already received almost 60,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The World Bank and the International Federation of 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.

“Many violations have occurred in vaccination centers,” said Sharaf Abu Sharaf, president of the Lebanese Medical Association. He said the violations included vaccinating people who were not registered or were not included in the first phase of the campaign.

Lebanese expected the vaccine launch to be riddled with corruption and rape, but news of the vaccination of lawmakers as a political group in a building used by the legislature sparked new outrage among the country’s population on Monday.

Abdul Rahman Bizri, who heads the committee that oversees the vaccination campaign, planned to resign in protest on Tuesday, but later changed his mind, saying his committee will hold a meeting on Wednesday to follow up on the case.

He demanded an explanation of the legislature.

“What happened today is outrageous and should not be repeated,” said Bizri. “There is no political priority.”

Bizri said the national vaccine plan requires people to get vaccines in predetermined centers without favoritism, adding that before giving the press conference he discussed the matter with the World Bank’s regional director.

“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 which means that there should be no nepotism.

Parliament’s secretary general, Adnan Daher, was quoted by state media as denying that the 16 lawmakers skipped the line, which prioritizes medical workers and residents over 75 years old. Daher said that all lawmakers who received the vaccine registered and were properly aligned.

Some of the lawmakers vaccinated on Tuesday are under 75, according to names that leaked to the local media, including 71-year-old MP Elie Ferzli. Ferzli said in a tweet that he registered to get the vaccine in late January.

In January, the Lebanese government launched a digital coronavirus vaccination registration platform for residents of the country.

Later on Tuesday, a statement issued by the presidency said that President Michel Aoun, 86, as well as his wife and 10 people from his entourage, also received their vaccines according to the online vaccination platform.

The World Bank “can suspend funding for vaccines and support for the COVID19 response across Lebanon !!” Jha tweeted on Tuesday. “I appeal to everyone, I want to tell everyone, regardless of their position, to register and wait for their turn.”

Jha said the vaccination plan “is not in line with the national plan” agreed with the World Bank and “we would register it (as a) violation of the terms and conditions agreed with us for a fair and equitable vaccination.”

Lebanon, a country of 6 million people, including one million Syrian refugees, has recorded more than 356,000 cases of coronavirus and 4,387 deaths since the first case was recorded in February last year.

A recent rise in cases has overwhelmed hospitals that are already struggling to cope with the country’s severe financial crisis.