BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Under close watch by the World Bank and international humanitarian organizations, Lebanon has begun a smooth COVID-19 vaccination campaign that is expected to last at least a year to contain the virus' spread.
The country's inoculation campaign kicked off Sunday, a day after receiving a first batch of 28,500 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine of 2.1 million doses to be delivered in stages throughout the year. Frontline health workers, people over age 75 and those with chronic diseases were the first to take the vaccine, in line with priorities laid out by the World Health Organization.
The fact that the World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are closely monitoring the implementation of the vaccination program has dissipated fears of abuse by corrupt and influential political powers, preferential treatment and possible smuggling or selling of the vaccines on the black market.
"We are on day 5 of the start of the campaign. The [IFRC] teams are reporting a very efficient and successful rollout at all the centers we have been to," Dr. Hossam Elsharkawi, IFRC MENA regional director, told UPI.
The World Bank allocated $34 million to fund Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for 2 million people and to help Lebanon launch a national campaign. It entrusted the IFRC with ensuring safe handling of the doses, as well as fair, transparent and equitable access to all, including Palestinian refugees, displaced Syrians and migrant workers.
There will be "no wasta," Ferid Belhaj, World Bank vice president for the Middle East & North Africa, wrote Sunday on Twitter. He was referring to a damaging and widespread practice of nepotism, favoritism and preferential treatment in the corruption-plagued country.
Political deadlock, the absence of a government, a socio-economic situation that continues to decline with the coronavirus' spread and the "largely failed" negotiations between the International Monetary Fund and the Lebanese government have "resulted in a situation where the international community is unable to give Lebanon money directly," Elsharkawi said.
Thus the need has emerged for "a third party that is an international, independent, neutral and objective monitor to make sure that things are being done properly."
Lebanon, Elsharkawi said, appears to be the "first or one of the first [countries] to have international volunteers for its vaccination rollout."
"Our job is to observe from A to Z; from arrival of the vaccines...to distribution to the vaccination sites, to ensuring safety and flow and also following up with many of those vaccinated in their respective communities to look at their experience and complaints," he said, adding that the IFRC submits daily reports to the World Bank and the Lebanese government to "take corrective actions" when needed.
IFRC teams, which have no access to the list of people who registered for vaccination on the official platform to confirm that priority and guidelines are respected, are also relying on the medical staff, people receiving the vaccines and the media to help disclose any wrongdoing.
"We did register violations. I can't say how many and what they are," Elsharkawi said. "But they are a minority of cases that are not representative of the way the vaccine is being rolled out."
With such international monitoring, people are more trusting of the process.
Nada Sleiman, a 59-year-old designer who registered for vaccination when the platform was launched in January, said she had "no fears taking the vaccine" but was concerned about proper storage and equitable distribution.
"I feel more at ease, more assured now, knowing that the process is being monitored by an independent international organization and that people will get the vaccines in a fair way."
A source at the Ministry of Health who spoke on condition of anonymity told UPI more than 650,000 people, including some 100,000 above age 75, have registered for the vaccine and "the number is increasing by 50,000 every day."
"We are aiming at vaccinating 20,000 people before the arrival of the second batch of vaccines -- some 31,500 doses -- this Saturday," the source said.
No official data is available on the number of those who have taken the vaccine and whether they included non-Lebanese residents. But the source said the ministry will start issuing a weekly report that will include the total number of vaccinated people, their age and nationality.
Samira Abdel Malak, 86, took the vaccine Thursday, accompanied by her grandson at the Rizk Hospital in Beirut. "It was easy and smooth," Abdel Malak told UPI. "I feel more assured but still afraid of any side effect."
Lebanon registered a record 54 new COVID-19-related deaths Thursday, with 2,730 new cases reported in 24 hours, raising the total number to 348,793 cases and 4,206 deaths since the outbreak began Feb. 21.
The country, which needs 10 million vaccines to cover residents above age 16 from among an estimated population of 4.5 million to 5 million with two doses, is seeking 1.5 million doses from AstraZeneca and has reserved 2.7 million doses through the global COVAX distribution program. The country has yet to secure 4 more million doses, some expected to be covered through donations.
Claudio Cordone, Lebanon's director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said he was so far "pleased with the implementation of the plan," as a first group of the agency's health workers received the vaccines on Tuesday in southern Lebanon.
"We are starting as planned among the early ones, with health workers being given the priority," Cordone told UPI. "Things are moving according to the national plan."
The plan, according to Elsharkawi, also includes mobile units, which will tour refugee camps and other remote areas to assist those who cannot access the vaccination sites.
Dalal Harb, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, welcomed the fact that Syrian refugees are included.
Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, of whom 872,361 are registered with the UNHCR, which is helping them to enroll in the vaccination program.
"Anything that applies to everybody residing in Lebanon applies to the refugees," Harb told UPI. "Nobody is going to be safe unless everybody is safe, everybody is vaccinated."