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.