Lebanon administered Sunday its first jabs of COVID-19 vaccine, with an intensive care unit physician and a well-known 93-year-old comedian becoming the first to receive Pfizer-BioNTech doses.
Lebanon launched its inoculation campaign a day after receiving the first batch of the vaccine -- 28,500 doses from Brussels, near where Pfizer has a manufacturing facility. More were expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
The rollout will be monitored by the World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to ensure safe handling and fair and equitable access for all Lebanese.
The World Bank offered a $34 million loan to help pay for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for Lebanon that will inoculate over 2 million people. Nearly 3 million other vaccine doses are expected to be secured through the U.N.-backed COVAX program. Both are free of charge.
The private sector has been negotiating separately for more vaccines.
There were scenes of overcrowding in some of the hospitals administering the early doses of the vaccine as media and officials attended.
World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha said on Sunday that Red Cross and Red Crescent teams are monitoring procedures for violations and urged Lebanese to follow the rules.
"Everyone please wait for your turn!" Jha tweeted.
Lebanon is in the midst of a surge in coronavirus cases. It has registered about 337,000 cases with 3,961 deaths since its first confirmed case last February.
The country of over 6 million, including more than 1 million refugees, at first managed to contain the virus. But since the catastrophic August explosion at Beirut port, it has witnessed a surge that only worsened during the holiday season. That's when the government, seeking to boost the economy, eased restrictions in place for months as nearly 80,000 expats arrived in Lebanon.
After record death tolls and infections, Lebanon imposed its strictest lockdown yet in early January, with 24-hour curfews and only basic services operating. The lockdown is now slowly easing.
But reflecting a skeptical public, only 450,000 people have registered to be vaccinated, including 45,000 aged over 75 and 17,500 staff from the health sector, caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan has said.
He has promised all residents would be vaccinated, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the country.
The head of the ICU at the country's lead hospital in fighting the virus, Dr. Mahmoud Hassoun, was the first to receive the vaccine. After his inoculation, Hassoun urged Lebanese to sign up to get the vaccine to ensure community immunity.
"Please take the vaccine, no matter which one, as soon as possible," he appealed to the public through LBCI TV.
"Hopefully this will be the start of the end of this plague in the country," Hassoun told AFP.
Salah Tizani, a famous actor in Lebanon who goes by the name Abu Salim, was the first among the public of 75-year-old and above to get vaccinated.
"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," he told AFP.
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was present at the vaccination room, paid tribute to the country's overworked and overwhelmed front line workers.
"You are the unknown soldiers who have borne a great burden for a year, and who have been up to the responsibility," he told the medical team.
"Today is not my turn," said the 61-year-old premier.
"The priority is for the health sector, which has... made great sacrifices," he said.
"We hope to reach adequate community protection so life can gradually return to normal in Lebanon as soon as possible," Diab added.
Some 55,000 high risk health workers are expected to receive the early doses.
Outside the American University of Beirut Medical Center, doctors and nurses lined up to receive the vaccine. The private hospital said it aimed to vaccinate 180 people on Sunday.
Dr. Rasha Sawaya, a pediatric emergency doctor, was among the first to get the jab.
"I feel privileged, excited that this is happening to Lebanon. A good thing for once is working," she said.
"Finally there's a glimpse of hope that things will get back to normal," said medical student Dana Chatila, who was waiting in her white lab coat and mask outside AUBMC, where she works in the emergency department.
"It's going to take time of course, but the darkness is ending."
Healthcare workers at three Beirut hospitals in total were to receive their first shot on Sunday.
From Monday, another 18 hospitals across the country are to join in the vaccination campaign, health ministry adviser Mohamad Haidar has said.
Firass Abiad, the head of the Rafik Hariri Hospital, said Saturday that a first jab was "the best gift one can ask for on Valentine's Day".
But many in Lebanon are still hesitant to get the jab.
Of 500 people surveyed by private think-tank Information International, 31 percent said they would get vaccinated, 38 percent said they would rather not and another 31 percent were undecided.
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