COVID vaccines used as political clientelism tool in Lebanon

Political leaders continue to buy popular support

29 March, 12:49

    (ANSAMed) - BEIRUT, 29 MAR - (by Lorenzo Trombetta) (ANSAmed) - BEIRUT, MARCH 29 - In a Lebanon governed for decades by a political system ever more contested by wide sectors of the population and under the shadow of the worst economic crisis in decades, the administration of anti-COVID vaccines risks becoming - like water, electricity, schools, hospitals - a tool for political clientelism.

    The country is struggling with surging devaluation of the local lira and growing social-economic tension with half of its population under the poverty line. A series of initiatives have been backed by private sector circles and political clans to ensure that Russian and Chinese-made vaccines go to members of their support base in various Lebanese regions.

    This mechanism involves the health ministry, regional councils, and some town councils, and - according to local analysts - will help to deepen a gap between a smaltire circle of the privileged, who will receive vaccines before others due to their access to the clientele system, and a mass of people, including over a million Syrian refugees, who will instead have to wait for a long time before receiving the much-coveted doses of anti-COVID vaccines.

    About six million people will be vaccinated in Lebanon. The campaign began in mid-February but is proceeding slowly with just over 1,000,000 doses given.

    The country, which has been officially bankrupt since last year, does not have the resources to pay for the vaccines: some of them - Pfizer-BioNTech - are being funded by the World Bank and other AstraZeneca ones through the UN's COVAX platform.

    However, the public has not forgotten a scandal of a few weeks ago including some MPs and President Michel Aoun and his entourage, who were vaccinated secretly without local authorities being made aware and outside of protocols agreed upon between Beirut and international authorities.

    It was in this context that the first 50,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccines arrived on Friday in the Lebanese capital for a number of private companies including the flagship airline Middle East Airlines via costly intermediation by the Lebanese pharmaceutical company Pharmaline. Pharmaline chief Jacques Sarraf is an honorary Russian consul in Lebanon and member of the Russian-Lebanese Businessmen Council.

    The companies that buy Sputnik V from Pharmaline will thus be able to vaccinate their employees and their family members.

    However, there are also local institutions involved in this mechanism: the town council of Byblos, north of Beirut, announced in recent days that it could soon start to vaccinate some residents with the Russian vaccines bought from Pharmaline.

    In a context in which local Lebanese authorities complain of a chronic lack of funds from the central government, many have asked who paid Pharmaline for the vaccines supplied to the Byblos town council.

    The Qubayyat town council, in the northern region of Akkar, has instead announced that it would be able to vaccinate some of its residents with Chinese vaccines bought "thanks to a donation" from the family of the current prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, who does not want to lose support in that region.

    At the same time, in the southern municipality of Jezzine, well-informed sources have told ANSAmed that competition is instead underway between two local dignitaries to ensure the merit of having provided some residents with Russian vaccines.(ANSAmed). (ANSAMed).

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