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16 September 2020

Beirut was already struggling with a migration crisis and Covid, then the blast hit

Six weeks on from a devastating explosion in Lebanon’s capital, coronavirus-prevention measures are low on residents’ priority lists – and cases are rising.

By Lizzie Porter

After lockdown measures were eased in June, Lebanon recorded a sustained increase in Covid-19 cases. Diners returned to restaurants and swimmers to beaches. Then came the explosion that ripped through the capital, Beirut, on 4 August, killing nearly 200 people and creating billions of dollars’ worth of damage. In its wake, coronavirus prevention measures have dropped even further down people’s priority lists. Six weeks on from the devastating blast, caused by nearly 3,000 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the city seaport, there have been record daily numbers of new Covid-19 infections in Lebanon. As of 11 September, the total had reached 22,000 reported infections and 219 deaths.

The numbers may sound low relative to other global hot-spots, but Lebanon’s population is only around seven million people. The explosion damaged six hospitals, increasing the pressure on other facilities treating coronavirus patients, and straining intensive care units with hundreds of victims who sustained serious injuries. Weak state investment has limited hospitals’ ability to respond to an increased coronavirus load, and raised the risk of virus transmission in the aftermath of the port explosion.

With government crisis coordination largely absent, thousands of volunteers have taken up brooms and buckets, clearing the rubble and the smashed glass sprayed across Beirut. “There is a lot more interaction between people than should have been needed, and than was properly regulated,” says Melissa Fathallah, one of the founders of the Baytna Baytak (“Our home is your home” in Arabic) initiative, which provides temporary, disinfected homes to people who lost their properties in the blast, and lodgings for those who need to quarantine due to coronavirus. Organisations like Fathallah’s are doing what they can to implement preventative measures against coronavirus, but are struggling to adapt to the scale of the challenge. “Not everyone around us is necessarily taking their precautions because they’re in a moment of shock,” she says. “I can’t look at someone who’s standing in front of his house and looking at every single memory he has on the ground, and say, ‘Listen, put on a mask.’ I can’t do that.”

Although they weren’t widely affected by the explosion, residents of Palestinian refugee camps are among the most vulnerable to the virus’s spread. “My greatest fear remains the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the infection through communities almost defenceless as a result of overcrowding, poverty, malnutrition and a high prevalence of chronic diseases,” says Dr Ali Dakwar, director of programmes in Lebanon for the non-governmental organisation Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Endeavouring to slow the spread of the virus, Lebanese authorities introduced a further two-week lockdown on 21 August. But the closure is politically unpopular in a country suffering its worst financial crisis in decades, with thousands relying on day wages and some doctors already reporting people arriving at their clinics complaining of hunger.

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Dr Firass Abiad, the general manager of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, says: “People are under extreme mental, social and financial stress, and a lot of people are entering lockdown without any support whatsoever.” He believes that some of the funds that have poured into aid organisations since the blast need to be allocated to combating the pandemic. “At the moment, Covid is becoming our biggest challenge,” he says. “If things get out of hand, we can quickly see a high number of casualties.”

Over the past few weeks, people in Lebanon have lost what little faith they had left in their leaders, as well as their homes, businesses and loved ones. Now the risks to their health are mounting, too.

Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid