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5 August 2020

A tragedy in Beirut comes at a moment of crisis for Lebanon

The city has been rocked by a massive blast as it contends with economic and public health crises.  

By Ido Vock

A huge explosion ripped through central Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least 154 people and injuring thousands of others as seismic shockwaves rocked the Lebanese capital. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has attributed the source of the explosion to an estimated 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the city’s port, though the exact cause is still unclear.

Videos of the blast posted online show a shockwave rippling through the air above the port. Windows shattered for kilometres around. On Friday, the Lebanese state news agency cited the health minister as saying that 154 had been killed and at least 5,000 injured.

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Pictures from the scene show dazed figures walking through rubble-filled streets among buckled car carcasses. In a horrifying video filed near the blast zone, dozens of bloodied people mingle outside a hospital as they await admission.

The search for victims continued through the night and into Wednesday. 

The blast comes as Lebanon experiences its worst economic crisis in decades. The country defaulted on its debt in March for the first time in its history. Prices of many goods have doubled or tripled as the street value of the lira has dropped from 1,500 to the dollar to 8,000. Unemployment stands at around 30 per cent.

As Jim Muir wrote for the New Statesman last month, the Covid-19 pandemic has added to Lebanon’s substantial economic woes. Covid-19 “came to a country that was already collapsing under its own much deadlier virus,” the financial crisis, Antoine Khoury, a lighting contractor, told him at the time. Some in Lebanon worried the unemployment rate could soar as high as 70 per cent as the government eased lockdown. There are fears of famine if the crisis worsens.

Lebanon, already reeling from twin crises, must now add a third to its woes: a rising death toll, thousands of casualties and the devastation of swathes of its capital city.