Lebanon gave its first COVID-19 vaccines dose to a doctor and an elderly actor on Sunday, as it started an inoculation drive it hopes will keep the pandemic in check amid deepening economic crisis.
Mahmoud Hassoun, the head of the intensive care unit at the key Rafik Hariri Hospital battling coronavirus, was the first person to get the jab.
“Hopefully this will be the start of the end of this plague in the country,” Hassoun told the news agency AFP.
He received a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a day after the first batch of 28,500 doses landed at Beirut’s airport.
Healthcare workers and those above 75 years are the first in line to be vaccinated under the national roll-out plan.
Popular Lebanese comedian Salah Tizani, 93, who is best known by his stage name Abu Salim, was second to roll up his shirtsleeves in front of the cameras.
“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 and Health Minister Hamad Hassan were present during the inoculation.
“I will not be receiving the vaccine today,” Diab told reporters. “Priority will be given to the medical staff, who have made great sacrifices and they must be given full protection in order to do their message.”
Healthcare workers at three Beirut hospitals were also set to receive their first shot on Sunday.
For his part, Hassan said some 450,000 people have signed up to be vaccinated in Lebanon including 45,000 aged above 75 and 17,500 staff from the health sector.
He also promised all residents would be vaccinated, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the country.
The World Bank and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will monitor the vaccine roll-out.
Lebanon has so far confirmed 336,992 virus infections, including 3,961 deaths.
Pandemic amid economic crisis
Last month, the Lebanese health ministry said it had ordered 2.1 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which will be received in stages over the year.
The country has also ordered 2.7 million doses through the global COVAX scheme and officials say talks are under way over an order of some 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The total number of doses ordered so far would cover about half of Lebanon’s population of more than six million, which includes at least a million Syrian refugees.
The country has been under a 24-hour curfew for nearly a month after an unprecedented spike in cases blamed on holiday gatherings forced overwhelmed hospitals to turn away patients for lack of beds.
The pandemic has compounded the woes of Lebanon, which is already struggling with a dire economic crisis and still reeling from a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port last year that killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed swathes of the capital.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 80 percent of its value to the dollar on the black market, prices have soared, and many have seen their savings trapped in banks.
More than half the population lives in poverty, and rights groups have warned millions would struggle to survive without help if coronavirus restrictions lasted too long.
The latest lockdown, which residents say was implemented without the provision of aid, sparked protests at the end of last month in Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli.
At least two people died in clashes with the Lebanese security forces, and hundreds of others were wounded.