A Reeling Lebanon Is Back in Lockdown as Coronavirus Surges

Lebanon was barely coming to grips with the explosion that ripped through its capital, killing at least 180 people and wounding thousands, when another grim statistic emerged -- the number of coronavirus cases hit 10,000 this week threatening to overwhelm a country already at breaking point.

A nationwide lockdown went into effect on Friday, a last-ditch attempt to avert the collapse of a health system yet to recover from the Aug. 4 blast that devastated entire neighborhoods, putting at least three hospitals and more than two dozen clinics out of service.

A Reeling Lebanon Is Back in Lockdown as Coronavirus Surges

Weeks of shutdowns between March and May had successfully halted the spread of Covid-19 but exacerbated an economic meltdown that’s hit the currency and fueled inflation. Life had just begun to return to Beirut -- and numbers were creeping up -- when disaster struck once again.

“Enforcing the lockdown under such circumstances is a big challenge. People are angry and feeling rebellious, and there’s little trust in the authorities,” said Firass Abiad, director of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, one of the capital’s main government-run health facilities. “All over the world we are seeing lockdown fatigue.”

Relief and repair efforts, which are being led by grassroots civil action groups and international aid organizations, are exempt from the latest closures. And in the absence of a clear government plan for the cleanup, it’s uncertain if authorities will be able to enforce the rules as families bury their dead in funerals that have drawn big crowds, tend the wounded and work together to repair homes, or find shelter, before winter. Early hopes that schools would reopen for the new academic year in September now seem highly optimistic.

A calender making the rounds on Lebanese social media matches the months with a procession of disasters that hit Lebanon in 2020. Coronavirus February, Lockdown March, Bankruptcy April and Inflation May lead to Explosion August. “Will healthcare collapse headline the month of September?” asked one Lebanese woman on Twitter.

A Reeling Lebanon Is Back in Lockdown as Coronavirus Surges

“On the night of the blast and the following days, the last things on people’s minds were social distancing and wearing masks. All of that is probably increasing our Covid cases,” Abiad said.

Lebanon has recorded 113 deaths from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, hitting a grim new milestone of 605 confirmed cases in a single day on Thursday.

The numbers seem small compared with elsewhere. But with Lebanon’s population hovering around 6.8 million, the percentage would amount to about 6,000 daily cases in country the size of Britain.

As well as concerns that the lockdown would be less effective this time, Lebanon is grappling with reduced capabilities due to the blast. The World Health Organization said on Aug. 12 that 500 beds had been removed from service though some of the field hospitals set up to help the injured were shifting focus to the growing challenge presented by Covid-19.

Rida al Mousawi, an adviser to the health minister, said 50 intensive care beds had been lost and another 100 were filled with blast victims. Aid was helping and the government is dedicating more hospitals to virus care, but facilities aren’t being added fast enough to cope with the exponential rise in infections.

Even before the blast, Lebanon’s health-care system was under severe pressure. Private hospitals were struggling to secure supplies due to a banking and dollar crisis. The government, which defaulted on its foreign debt in March and is running out of foreign currency reserves, hasn’t been paying hospitals on time for months.

Hundreds of medical staff had also lost their jobs over the past year as the economy slipped into deep recession.

A complete lockdown is virtually impossible to pull off given the multiple challenges facing the country but partial measures may not be enough to control the spread, said Mohammad Al Zayed, health coordinator at Amel Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organization that’s been helping with the cleanup.

“We may be heading toward an Italy-like scenario,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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