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'Lebanese First': Racist hashtag calls for Lebanese to get Covid vaccine before refugees Open in fullscreen

Florence Massena

'Lebanese First': Racist hashtag calls for Lebanese to get Covid vaccine before refugees

A Syrian refugee family in Lebanon [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 January, 2021

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A hashtag calling for Lebanese people to get vaccines before refugees has sparked renewed debate in Lebanon about racism, prejudice, and the right to medical care.
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are due to reach Lebanon in the middle of February and uncertainties remain regarding who will receive them. This unanswered question has led to a new trend on a social media calling for Lebanese to “be first” to receive the vaccine with racist language being used to express this sentiment.

The Arabic-language hashtag #Vaccines_for_Lebanese_first is now trending on Twitter, with Lebanese nationals calling for the government to favour citizens when distributing the vaccines, giving it to them ahead of migrants and Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the country.  This racist trend is fuelled by fears among the Lebanese population that there will not be enough vaccines to go round. Only two million doses, enough to cover about 20% of the population, have been secured so far accoding to Health Minister Hamad Hassan.

Comments shared by Twitter users included, “If vaccines are coming as a donation then you're right, EVERYONE needs to be vaccinated. But if Lebanon as a broken and bankrupt state is paying for it then Lebanese citizens should come first”, or “Lebanese should take the vaccine first, then the foreigners. Not the other way around. It is THEIR country, citizens should be the priority”.

One worry among Lebanese is that the government doesn't heave enough funds to secure more vaccine doses in the future. However, the country has signed up to COVAX, a global scheme backed by the World Health Organization to provide vaccines to poorer countries. Lebanon’s economy is in the midst an unprecedented crisis due to decades of financial mismanagement and corruption, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, the rise of the public debt and the coun pandemic.

Countering the racist sentiments of the first hashtag, another hashtag, #Vaccines_for_all has also emerged, calling for a non-discriminatory approach to vaccine distribution. It has been used by Lebanese people inside and outside the country, but notably members of the Lebanese diaspora, which numbers between 6 and 9 million people, have reminded their fellow that as foreigners in the countries they reside (or as dual nationals) they didn’t have to wait to receive the vaccine.

One Twitter user N. Hijazi said, “Today I woke up to the news of a trending hashtag in #Lebanon demanding that Lebanese should get the vaccine before immigrants & refugees […] Today was also the day I received my vaccine without anyone asking my nationality. Thank you #USA."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Lebanon commented on the trend with a Twitter status saying, “The coronavirus vaccine must be distributed adequately to all sectors of society, with a focus on those most vulnerable to infection and most at risk of complications.

There should be no discrimination in protecting the lives of humans, whether they’re rich people in cities or poor people in rural areas, or whether, they're old people in care homes, or young people in refugee camps.

#Vaccines_for_all”.

Rona Halabi, a spokesperson for the ICRC in Lebanon told The New Arab, "It was an opportunity for us to remind people of where we stand. Since June the ICRC has been saying that the vaccine for COVID-19 should have an equitable distribution for all - including marginalized or forgotten communities. This incudes people who live in areas controlled by non-state armed groups, other hard-to-reach areas, places of detention and marginalized communities such as migrants and internally displaced persons. 

According to the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, only Jordan has begun to vaccinate for refugees, with an inclusive campaign that started On January 14. Lebanon, with an estimated population of 6 million, has reported 1,210 deaths as a result of COVID-19, and has an estimated population of 6 million people including more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

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