“On the brink”: why Covid-19 is surging in blast-hit Lebanon

A new wave of coronavirus is further exposing government failings in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion.

 

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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 colossal explosion that ripped through the capital Beirut on 4 August, killing almost 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.

A fortnight on from the devastating blast, caused by nearly 3,000 tons of highly-explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the city seaport, Lebanon has seen record daily numbers of new Covid-19 infections. As of Thursday 20 August, the total had reached 10,952 confirmed infections and 113 deaths. The numbers may sound low relative to other global hotspots, but Lebanon’s population is only around seven million people. 

“We are on the brink, we don’t have the luxury to take our time,” the country’s interim health minister Hamad Hassan told a press conference earlier this week (18 August) when announcing a new country-wide lockdown.

[see also: A tragedy in Beirut comes at a moment of crisis for Lebanon]

The explosion also 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.

The country’s public healthcare system has lacked investment for decades and is poorly equipped to respond. “Beyond a certain level, new severe cases of Covid- 19 would overwhelm Lebanon’s healthcare services, adding a dreadful new element to the country’s limited resources and current hardships,” warned Carine Sakr, chairperson of the expert committee on Covid-19 at the American University of Beirut, in a message to university staff and students on 13 August – nine days after the explosion.

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, cleaning away 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,” said 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 from coronavirus. Organisations like Fathallah’s are doing what they can to implement coronavirus preventative measures, 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 said. “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,” said Dr Ali Dakwar, director of programmes in Lebanon for non-governmental organisation Medical Aid for Palestinians.

[see also: The world responds to the crisis in Beirut]

In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, Lebanese authorities have introduced a two-week lockdown. 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.

According to Dr Firas Abiad, general manager of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, one of Lebanon’s main coronavirus treatment centres, “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 pouring into aid organisations in the wake of the blast need to be allocated to combating the pandemic. “At the moment, Covid is becoming our biggest challenge,” he said. “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 was left in their leaders, as well as their homes, businesses and loved ones. Now the risks to their health are mounting, too.

[see also: “The only safe place I had is broken”: how Beirut’s blast sparked political fury]

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.

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