The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines for Lebanon arrived in the country on February 13, 2021 as part of the World Bank-financed Lebanon Health Resilience Project (LHRP). This is also the first World Bank support for COVID-19 vaccination in the world. Lebanon officially launched the national vaccination campaign at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut on February 14. The first to receive the vaccine was Dr. Mahmoud Hassoun, the head of the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The second in line was beloved Lebanese actor, 93-year-old Salah Tizani. Together, they represent the priority groups which the campaign targets in the early phases of vaccination: frontline health workers, the elderly, and those with co-morbidities.
“I’m telling everyone to come and get vaccinated and not be scared. Better to get vaccinated than to be knocked down by this deadly virus,” Tizani told the AFP. Despite the implementation challenges ahead, COVID-19 vaccination in Lebanon will save lives and support economic recovery in a country that urgently needs it.
Lebanon has been suffering from three mega-crises: an economic crisis since October 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion. The explosion damaged 292 health facilities and significantly reduced access to care, especially for the vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the strains on the health sector.
In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank (WB) approved the reallocation of US$40 million for COVID-19 response under LHRP, a US$120 million project approved in 2017 to support the Government with increasing access to quality healthcare services to poor Lebanese and displaced Syrians. The reallocation represented the first World Bank financing to help a country fight COVID-19. The reallocation helped procure medical equipment and supplies to increase Lebanon’s capacity in responding to the pandemic and cover hospital fees for COVID-19 patients. To date, the project has provided medical equipment and supplies to 45 public and private hospitals and paid the hospital bills for 768 patients.
But an unprecedented surge in COVID-19, coupled with a high level of infections among health workers in Lebanon has been overstretching the health sector’s capacity. Along with other public health measures, a quick rollout of COVID-19 vaccination is crucial to protect the health system, reduce the spread of infection and put the country on its path to reopening the economy with confidence.
Once again, the World Bank’s Board of Directors approved on January 20th, in a special session, a second reallocation of LHRP funds for COVID-19 vaccination, bringing the total value of the COVID-19 component to US$58 million, of which US$34 million is dedicated to COVID-19 vaccination. Less than 48 hours later, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) was able to transfer the payment for the purchase of what would be the first COVID-19 vaccines Lebanon would receive.
Vaccine deployment takes much more than vaccine purchase. The World Bank team, in collaboration with other development partners, supported the MoPH to develop a high-quality national deployment and vaccination plan (NDVP) which was adopted on January 27th. According to the NDVP, the vaccine will be provided to priority populations in an inclusive and non-discriminatory manner. The MoPH has also taken steps to prepare for customs clearance, ultra-cold chain required for vaccine transport and storage, as well as readiness of vaccination sites.
The Government also launched a digital COVID-19 vaccination registration platform on January 28th. The platform allows all persons living in Lebanon to pre-register for the COVID-19 vaccine. The platform’s pre-programmed algorithms will select priority vaccine recipients based on agreed eligibility criteria.
“I was glad to see priority groups already getting the COVID-19 vaccines within hours of arriving in Lebanon,” said World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region, Ferid Belhaj. “We will monitor fair and transparent distribution to priority groups as agreed with the government. Raising awareness, encouraging people to register, and ensuring fair & transparent distribution are key to make this a real success.”
The World Bank and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) signed an agreement for the independent monitoring of Lebanon’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Under this agreement, IFRC as the Third-Party Monitoring Agency (TPMA), will be in charge of independently monitoring the compliance of the vaccination deployment with NDVP, international standards and World Bank requirements in all technical, environmental and social aspects. This is to ensure safe, effective and equitable vaccine deployment.
To fulfill this mandate, IFRC will monitor storage, stock and temperature maintenance across the supply chain, service delivery at vaccination sites, eligibility of vaccine recipients and client feedback. In addition, IFRC teams will monitor social media and analyze the data from the call center set up by the MoPH as part of the Grievance Redress Mechanism established under the project.
In consultation with the Government and development partners, the World Bank has also established an international Joint Monitoring Committee consisting of World Bank, WHO, UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR and UNRWA, to monitor the vaccination campaign and ensure joint advocacy throughout the process.
The quick rollout of this vaccination program, in cooperation with all our partners and along with other public health measures, is crucial to protecting not only Lebanon’s health system, but reducing the spread of infection. It is the beginning of a light at the end of the tunnel and will hopefully help country on its path to reopening the economy with confidence.