Pharmacy professor, students launch campaign to secure COVID-19 vaccines for Lebanese universities
When Wayne State Professor of Pharmacy Practice Linda Jaber looked at COVID-19 vaccination availability and administration strategies on a global scale, she was disturbed by the stark inequalities – especially in her home country of Lebanon.
The Lebanese government's rollout of the vaccine is slow, and vaccine supplies are inadequate. “The Lebanese government is able to secure 3 million doses. But Lebanon’s population is approximately 7 million, including 2 million refugees,” Dr. Jaber said. “At this rate, it will take two to three years to reach herd immunity.”
A dramatic decline
Since roughly the end of 2019, Lebanon has been on the brink of bankruptcy and facing its most serious economic, political and social turmoil in modern history.
In the year before COVID-19 took hold, the country was already in the midst of banks collapsing, currency crashing, people losing their lifelong savings and literally fighting over essential items, shattering of existing businesses and skyrocketing of unemployment.
“To put the economic toll in perspective,” Dr. Jaber said, “$1US equated to about 1,500 Lebanese lira for decades. Now, $1US is worth over 12,000 lira. The Chief of the Army’s income has dropped to the equivalent of $400US a month, and the average person’s earnings are $50US a month.”
There has been an unprecedented rise in sometimes violent anti-government protests on the streets. And of course, the massive port explosion that decimated a third of the capital city of Beirut, killing hundreds and hamstringing the country’s infrastructure.
In terms of health care, the country’s trauma has resulted in the mass exodus of doctors, nurses and faculty. More than 1,000 doctors have officially left Lebanon, with unreported numbers estimated much higher.
Then came COVID-19.
Among Arab countries, Lebanon has the third highest daily infection rate and the number one highest death rate from COVID-19 – not surprising considering the perfect storm of disasters the country was facing when the virus arrived. Supplies have dwindled to the point that Lebanon’s minister of health had to go to Syria to beg for oxygen.
Dr. Jaber couldn’t look away. She combined her roles as a scientist and academician to conceive the Lebanon Matters Fund, which aims to raise money to provide COVID-19 vaccines to faculty, staff and students of Lebanon’s many universities.
“Higher education in Lebanon was adversely affected by COVID-19 more so than in most places. The country lacks the technological resources for online learning,” she said. “Most students and their families cannot afford internet access at home, and many do not have their own computers. Unreliable electricity is even an issue. The morale of students is so low.”
Currently the country’s highest rates of COVID-19 are in people age 20-29, with the protests fueling transmission. These college students are then taking the virus home to their parents and older relatives.
With her mission set, Dr. Jaber called on the Center of Arab American Philanthropy, an ACCESS institution, to assist with the logistics, and the campaign was officially launched on March 23, 2021.
“I hope this will become a widespread effort to aid vaccination efforts in Lebanon and in higher education specifically,” she said. “Universities exist for the greater good, and the Lebanon Matters Fund acknowledges and celebrates that.”
Dr. Jaber has also enlisted the help of Wayne State’s student chapter of the Arab American Pharmacist Association (AAPA). Outreach is key for this campaign, and WSU Applebaum PharmD students are playing a vital role in helping the fund grow.
Third-year student pharmacist Rola Hariri, president of the AAPA, said, “We wanted to effectively be involved in this initiative to help Lebanon, which is dealing with many tragedies and struggles. Many Americans are unaware of the current situation happening there, and this campaign gives the AAPA an opportunity to raise awareness and provide aid to the country.”
Students are taking responsibility for reaching out to the community for donations, sharing information about the Lebanon Matters Fund with organizations at Wayne State and other universities, local businesses, and more.
“In Lebanon, the virus is putting additional strain on the already struggling country. The vast majority are unable to gain access to the vaccine to keep themselves, their families and surrounding communities safe. By helping provide vaccines for Lebanon, we are giving the country the opportunity to stand back up on its feet and giving hope to its people,” Hariri said.
Making a difference
Dr. Jaber is calling upon her connections at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Lebanese American University (LAU) – two major institutions with international articulation agreements with Wayne State – for help with effective and equitable distribution of the funds raised.
“Complete transparency is a critical part of this campaign,” she explained. “There is a deeply ingrained mistrust of the country’s leadership, so it is important to me that we can show our donors where every dollar went, how it was spent, and how many doses were administered as a result.”
Everyone who donates any amount will receive an acknowledgment letter of their tax-deductible gift, and updates and reports on the campaign.
Dr. Jaber’s goal for the Lebanon Matters Fund is $500,000, which would vaccinate thousands of university faculty and students. She aims to help inspire a more equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and global efforts to help countries that can’t afford them.
“It’s true what all the major health organizations are saying: No one is safe until everyone is safe. And when we say ‘everyone,’ we mean everyone globally. So we have to work together."
If you’d like to support the Lebanon Matters Fund, you can make a tax-deductible gift online. Check with your company to see if they will match your gift.