During the second week of a national vaccine rollout, 16 Lebanese lawmakers and several staff members were immunized with the BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccines at the Lebanese parliament in Beirut. Days earlier, President Michel Aoun, his wife, and ten staff members also got vaccinated.
The recent revelations triggered angry accusations of queue-jumping. The political elite were among the first to get less than 30,000 vaccines administered in Lebanon, home to more than 6 million people, including some 1.5 million refugees.
The country’s politicians were already loathed as Lebanon continues to buckle under the weight of a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by pandemic, chronic corruption and mismanagement, as well as the aftershocks of the devastating Beirut port explosion, widely blamed on official negligence.
The World Bank says that more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. As many as 90 per cent of Syrian refugees in the country require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Against this backdrop, corruption has reinforced common distrust in political leaders. Without deep economic and political reforms, the international community is unwilling to provide aid to the hard-hit country.
When the World Bank made Lebanon the first country to get special financing for vaccine purchases – $43M repurposed from a pre-existing healthcare loan – it demanded the vaccines be distributed fairly. They were apparently not.
If the transgression is confirmed, the World Bank “may suspend financing for vaccines and support for COVID19 response across Lebanon!!” tweeted Saroj Kumar Jha, the Bank’s regional director. There has yet to be a decision.
In a statement, Ferid Belhaj, the Vice President of the World Bank Middle East and North Africa region, intoned that, “Credibility and transparency are the two fundamental elements in all World Bank financed programs and projects […] without any exceptions.
“And let me say it very clearly: There will be no wasta.” Wasta, the Arabic word for connections and nepotism, meaning the vaccines must not be handed out to powerful cronies.
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch noted that, “For decades, we’ve been seeing international aid come into the country and then be siphoned off to politicians and their cronies. The international community got fed up with the scale of corruption.”
For some 730,000 Lebanese already registered for the vaccine and waiting on their turn, the politicians’ actions were particularly infuriating. Regardless of the urgency of Lebanon’s many crises, lawmakers have failed to form a new government – seven months since the previous one resigned.
Calamites continue to pile up. Beirut, which in recent years was largely exempt from the harsh rationing of electricity, is now suffering blackouts lasting as much as 12 hours day.
As common in such catastrophes, explanations are elusive, though they all boil down to inefficiency and inattention to public needs.
One possibility: the collapse of the Lebanese pound means that suppliers are demanding dollars for oil imports. Dollars are hard to come by in Lebanon.
Two petroleum shops are sitting offshore waiting for proper letters of credit. Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni has signed the opening of credits in favor of the Electricite du Liban to pay for the fuel, but the credits are in Lebanese pounds, a currency no one wants. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Energy is also in arrears to oil companies for previous deliveries.
Are the blackouts part of political maneuvering? In rumor-ridden Beirut, the blackouts are engineered to pressure Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to step down. That desire allegedly comes President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which wishes to maintain Lebanon’s tradition of a “blocking third” in the cabinet, where it only takes a third of ministers to veto government decisions. Hariri is trying to dispense with minority obstruction. The FPM controls the Ministry of Energy.
Beyond the immediate concern is the long-range problem of Lebanon’s collapsing infrastructure. The World Bank and investors have pledged to invest $11billion in Lebanon’s infrastructure, including electricity, but these investments are conditional on implementing reforms, including increasing electricity prices.
But that’s for later, given that the country has been without a functional government since October, 2019.
So, as has been the norm during the more than 16 months of economic and political crisis, common citizens step in to provide services the state cannot. Owners of electrical generators provide electrical power to whole neighborhoods of Beirut and other cities. They believe they provide a key service to citizens—though at excessive rates based on having a virtual monopoly, a need to find scarce fuel and to pay bribes to the police for setting up the spider-web networks of home-made power lines.
Still, ad hoc solutions can only go so far. Member of Parliament Faisal al-Sayegh said for the moment the government must immediately provide hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds to Electricite du Liban. Otherwise, he told reporters, he expected “the streets to explode soon.”
Some of those fears have already been realized. In January, Tripoli, an impoverished city in the north burst out into riots. The immediate cause was a harsh virus lockdown imposed all over the country. Such restrictions have led to the loss of 500,000 businesses and job, according to the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs.
Meanwhile, street crime is on the upswing as poor Lebanese, foreign economic migrants and refugees wander the streets. Food and medicines are among the most valued booty. In some parts of Lebanon, iron manholes are disappearing to be sold for scrap metal.
The question may soon become: What happens when the state fails? One possible outcome, according to the United States Institute of Peace, would be exploitation by outsiders, terrorist groups that may want to use Lebanon as a free territory from where to operate.
Lebanon, long a magnate for refugees, may itself become a source of massive displacement. For Europe, which may already face a summer influx of refugees from North Africa, this would mean a new refugee challenge on a continent that has yet to settle on a proper migrant and refugee policy.