L’Orient Today / By Emily Lewis
BEIRUT — The Health Ministry has hit back at a judge for ruling that it must vaccinate an elderly man for COVID-19 by Friday or face a fine, saying the decision is illegal.
However, Nizar Saghieh, the head of Legal Agenda, told L’Orient Today that the ministry’s response has “no legal basis” and is an attempt to escape accountability.
On Wednesday, Judge Carla Chawah issued a decision ordering the ministry to vaccinate 80-year-old Joseph al-Hajj within 48 hours; otherwise, it would be forced to pay LL10 million for every day that passed after the deadline without Hajj receiving a vaccine.
Hajj, who suffers from health conditions making him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, had filed a lawsuit with the urgent matters court against the Health Ministry on Tuesday for not being offered a vaccine, when a dozen MPs, some of whom were under 75 years old, had received the vaccine at Parliament on Feb. 23.
While the lawmakers claimed they had registered on the Health Ministry’s vaccine platform, they were not invited to their appointments through that mechanism; instead, they received phone calls the night before asking them to come to Parliament.
Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan said in a televised interview that he had ordered the ministry’s mobile clinic to go to Nijmeh Square and offer the inoculations as a “token of appreciation” for MPs’ efforts in passing a law allowing the use of COVID-19 vaccines — words cited in the judge’s ruling.
In the six-page ruling, Chawah argues that the vaccination of MPs violates Article 7 of the Lebanese constitution, which states that “all Lebanese shall be equal before the law” and Articles 1 and 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which discuss the principles of equality and the universal right to “life, liberty and security.”
“The judge’s decisions should be saluted,” Saghieh said. “It shows the role of judges in protecting the fundamental rights of citizens.”
The Health Ministry issued a statement late Wednesday night saying that Chawah, an ordinary judge in the court of urgent matters, did not have the authority to compel the ministry to vaccinate Hajj and that an administrative judge should have made such a decision.
However, Saghieh explained, when there is a “violation of fundamental rights,” as Chawah argued in her ruling, the ordinary court has jurisdiction.
“The ministry is acting in bad faith, as they know full well that the administrative court has no jurisdiction in urgent matters,” he continued. “This argument simply aims to get impunity.”
The ministry’s statement also said that the ruling was invalid because the judge had failed to consult the ministry in advance.
As the case was being treated as an urgent matter, however, the judge is not obliged to do so, Saghieh said, and has the right to issue a ruling based on Hajj’s complaint alone. “In this case, the judge had all the elements needed to make a decision,” he continued. “After all, Hassan went on TV and gave his explanation.”
Hajj will receive his COVID-19 vaccine “sooner or later,” the ministry’s statement continued, as the vaccinations are being rolled out according to the list of priorities set out in the national vaccination plan and in line with when recipients filled out the registration form.
Saghieh said this statement misses the principal point of the judge’s ruling.
“What the judge is protecting is not only the right [for Hajj] to receive the vaccine one day, but protecting his right to receive it as a priority,” he said.
The first priority group to receive vaccines are frontline health care workers and the over-75s. So far, 61,235 people have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to figures released by the Health Ministry Wednesday evening.
To date, 100,463 over-75s and 83,824 health workers have registered for the vaccine, with only around 100,000 doses of vaccine having been delivered to Lebanon so far, indicating that there are still many people awaiting their jab.
The fact that so many vulnerable people have not yet been vaccinated increased public anger over the MPs’ violation of the vaccination plan.
The Health Ministry also accused Chawah of making the decision simply to gain media attention, an accusation Saghieh dismissed as a “typical” response of the state to progressive judicial action.
“Every time we have a good decision protecting citizens, [those in power] start denigrating judges and saying they’re looking for media scoops,” he said.
“In fact, this is an important example of how journalists and the judiciary work together to achieve accountability.”