Beirut, Lebanon “People can inject themselves with any chemicals they want until the end of time, but I don’t want to,” 35-year-old Evelyn told Al Jazeera at an anti-vaccine demonstration in downtown Beirut recently.
She was among hundreds in Martyrs’ Square protesting a government decision requiring public sector workers to vaccinate or take PCR tests frequently at their own expense in order to go to work. They called it the “vaccine dictatorship.”
Since the festive season, Lebanon has documented an increasing number of daily COVID-19 cases, often breaking all-time records in the cash-strapped country. Getting vaccinated in Lebanon is still a personal choice.
Moreover, Lebanon is struggling to vaccinate its population, although it does not suffer from a shortage of supplies. Many people simply refuse to do so.
As of Thursday, only about 37 percent of the population had received two doses of the vaccine, according to Health Ministry. Two-thirds of the population has been registered to receive the vaccination so far.
Roland Adwan, vice president of the trade union syndicate that organized the protest, said that this policy violates personal freedoms enshrined in the Lebanese constitution and international law.
They want to use the vaccine by force, but which vaccine? There was a first dose, then a second dose, and a third dose, and then what? Fifth dose? He said in a hot speech.
“This is a lie to the world and even Donald Trump, the president of the most powerful country in the world, said the WHO is a liar.”
Adwan soon started coughing but assured the audience that it was because he smokes four packs of cigarettes every day.
Health Minister Firas Abyad dismissed the latest protest as the Health Ministry organized another “vaccine marathon”, where thousands of people across the country could get the vaccine without appointments.
“I think they are [protest] The numbers were low. [and] “It can’t be compared to the 30,000 who came to the vaccination centers on the same day,” White told Al Jazeera.
Abyad said he believed some of the protesters “were misguided and some were disingenuous.”
Misinformation about the vaccine
A Lebanese social media group called Conscious Warriors For Truth distributed leaflets at the protest, claiming the virus cannot be transmitted through asymptomatic patients, exaggerated COVID-19 statistics, and unsafe and ineffective vaccines.
Meanwhile, a pastor in a WhatsApp group has sent an audio recording inviting worshipers to attend the protest against the new vaccination regulation.
“If we don’t take action, our God will hold us accountable,” he said, “because we’re not taking a fair stance.” “With words we pray but in action we let the devil eat our children. Can you imagine vaccinating young children now at school?”
“This is the real revolution that the Virgin Mary will lead.”
Anti-vaccine content is spread across Lebanese social media channels from various sites.
Mohamed Negm, executive director of Beirut-based digital rights organization SMEX, told Al Jazeera that Lebanon’s financial crisis and distrust of authorities played a role in hesitating about vaccines and spreading misinformation.
“They were sharing a lot of conspiracy theory videos, with the sequences [US President Joe] Biden and others.” “Most seem to be opposing the authorities because of the financial crisis, while a handful of them are already pushing for anti-vaccine plots.”
The World Bank describes the economic crisis in Lebanon as one of the worst since the mid-nineteenth century. In just over two years, the Lebanese pound has lost about 95 percent of its value, and the United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty.
The Lebanese government, which has been on the verge of bankruptcy since last October, has not met due to political differences.
In October 2019, mass protests rocked the country, with hundreds of thousands criticizing the country’s ruling parties, top financial officials and friends of the private sector who have controlled Lebanon for decades.
As a result, many have resorted to receiving their news and information through unofficial sources, including WhatsApp audio recordings.
Maroun El-Khouly, head of the union alongside Adwan, said Lebanese officials are not aware of the frequency of vaccines.
“Three thousand teachers do not want to be vaccinated, do you think the Lebanese government knows that?” He told Al Jazeera, claiming that there is a “silent majority” of people who oppose vaccine and vaccine mandates. “This is a group of deprived and oppressed people, their voices are silent.”
Al-Khouli was vaccinated but said he believes it does not affect whether one can transmit or transmit COVID-19.
“Ultimately it comes down to how bad your symptoms are, so it’s a personal choice,” he concluded.
However, research has shown that the vaccine reduces to a varying extent the ability to catch and infect others with the virus, which was confirmed by MP Assem Al-Araji to Al-Jazeera.
“They are free to express themselves, and they have the right to express any opinion they want,” said Al-Araji, who heads the parliamentary health committee. But they can’t transmit diseases just because they don’t want to get vaccinated, wear masks, or take other measures. You are now hurting others.”
Some medical experts told Al Jazeera that Lebanon’s COVID-19 response strategy was arbitrary, with an emphasis on reducing numbers, without any long-term containment or mitigation strategy. However, al-Araji, Health Minister Abyad and other health officials in Lebanon said increased vaccination is key to limiting the spread of the disease as much as possible.
Last week, Lebanon opened a UAE-funded COVID-19 emergency field center in downtown Beirut, and Denmark donated 429,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine to the Ministry of Health so that children aged 5-11 can register for their first dose.
However, El-Khouly and others said they believe the Lebanese government cannot pressure and promote strict measures towards the unvaccinated.
“If the Lebanese government does not retreat from its dictatorial health policy, then there will be civil disobedience among thousands of people in various Lebanese sectors,” El-Khouli said.