Beirut, Lebanon — “People can inject themselves with whatever chemical they want until the time is up, but I don’t want to,” Evelyn, 35, told Al Jazeera during a recent anti-vaccine protest in central Beirut.
She was among hundreds of people in Martyrs Square protesting the government’s decision to require public sector workers to be vaccinated at their own expense or to undergo frequent PCR tests before going to work. They call it a “vaccine dictatorship.”
Lebanon has recorded a surge in the number of daily COVID-19 cases since the holiday season, often breaking records in the cash-strapped country. Getting vaccinated in Lebanon remains a personal choice.
On top of that, Lebanon is working hard to vaccinate its population, although it is not in short supply. Many simply refuse to do so.
As of Thursday, only about 37% of the population had received two doses of the vaccine, according to the Ministry of Health Department. To date, two-thirds of the population is registered for vaccination.
Roland Adwan, vice-president of the trade union group that organized the protests, said the policy violated individual freedoms enshrined in the Lebanese constitution and international law.
“They want to make the vaccine mandatory, but which vaccine? There’s a first dose, then a second dose, now a third dose, what’s next? A fifth dose?” he said in a fiery speech.
“It’s a lie to the world, even donald trumpThe president of the world’s most powerful country says the World Health Organization is a liar. “
Adwan soon started coughing, but assured viewers it was because he smoked four packs a day.
Health Minister Firas Abiad dismissed the latest protests as the ministry held another “vaccine marathon” where thousands of people across the country could be vaccinated without an appointment.
“I think their [protest] few people, [and] Can’t compare to the 30,000 people who came to the vaccine center on the same day,” Abyad told Al Jazeera.
Abyad said he believed some protesters were “misguided and some were dishonest.”
A Lebanese group on social media called Conscious Warriors For Truth distributed flyers at protests claiming that the virus cannot be spread through asymptomatic patients, that COVID-19 statistics are exaggerated and that vaccines are unsafe and ineffective.
Meanwhile, on a WhatsApp group, a priest sent a recording calling on believers to take part in protests against new vaccine regulations.
“If we don’t act, then our God will hold us accountable for not taking a stand for justice,” he said. “We prayed verbally, but in action we let the devil eat our children. Can you imagine vaccinating little kids at school right now?
“This is the real revolution that the Virgin Mary will lead.”
Anti-vaccine content is rampant from various locations in Lebanese social media channels.
Mohamad Najem, executive director of Beirut-based digital rights group SMEX, told Al Jazeera that Lebanon’s financial crisis and lack of trust in authorities have played a role in vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation.
“They’ll share a lot of conspiracy theory videos, sequences [US President Joe] Biden and others,” he explained. “It seems that the majority are against the authorities because of the financial crisis, and the minority is really pushing the anti-vaccine conspiracy. “
The World Bank describes Lebanon’s economic crisis as one The worst since the mid-19th 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 fallen into poverty.
The nearly bankrupt Lebanese government has not held a meeting on the political dispute since October.
October 2019, Mass protests rock the country, hundreds of thousands of people have criticized the state ruling party, senior financial officials and private-sector cronies that have controlled Lebanon for decades.
As a result, many people turn to informal channels, including WhatsApp recordings, to receive news and information.
Maroun al-Khawli, president of the union alongside Adwan, said Lebanese officials did not know the extent of vaccine hesitancy.
“Three thousand teachers don’t want to be vaccinated, do you think the Lebanese government knows?” he told Al Jazeera, claiming there is a “silent majority” who oppose vaccines and vaccine mandates. “This is a group of disenfranchised and oppressed people whose voices have been silenced.”
Al-Kawli was vaccinated, but said he believed it would not affect whether people could get infected or spread it Coronavirus disease.
“So ultimately it’s about how severe your symptoms are, so it’s a personal choice,” he concluded.
However, studies have shown that vaccines reduce the ability to catch the virus and infect others to varying degrees, a point that lawmaker Assem Alaji reiterated to Al Jazeera.
“They are free to express their opinions, they have the right to express any opinion they want,” said Araghi, who also chairs the parliamentary health committee. “But they can’t spread the disease just because they don’t want to get vaccinated, wear masks or take other measures. You’re harming other people right now.”
Some medical experts told Al Jazeera that Lebanon’s COVID-19 response strategy was arbitrary and focused on reducing numbers without any long-term strategy of containment or reduction. However, Araji, Health Minister Abyad and other health officials in Lebanon said that increasing vaccinations was the key to reducing transmission as much as possible.
Last week, Lebanon opened a UAE-funded emergency COVID-19 field centre in central Beirut, and Denmark donated 429,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to the Ministry of Health, so children aged 5 to 11 can start registering for their first vaccinations.
However, Khawli and others say they don’t think the Lebanese government can push and push for strict measures against the unvaccinated.
“If the Lebanese government does not turn against its health dictatorship, there will be civil disobedience in thousands of people in all sectors of Lebanon,” Khawli said.