Coronavirus: A clear and present danger to Lebanon

Coronavirus: A clear and present danger to Lebanon
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Everything in Lebanon has closed, with exceptions made for supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals. (AN photo by Nabil Ismail)
Coronavirus: A clear and present danger to Lebanon
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Everything in Lebanon has closed, with exceptions made for supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals. (AN photo by Nabil Ismail)
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Updated 26 March 2020

Coronavirus: A clear and present danger to Lebanon

Coronavirus: A clear and present danger to Lebanon
  • First cases in Lebanon reported in early March came from people returning from Iran or Italy
  • Testing privately for COVID-19 can cost $100 while it is free of charge for those with symptoms

DUBAI: After months of political instability and civil protests in Lebanon — triggered in October by planned taxes on WhatsApp, gasoline and tobacco — the country is bracing itself for a battle against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Lebanon is already drowning in debt and starved of dollars. And with a weekly withdrawal limit of $50-$300, depending on the bank and the size of the account, most Lebanese are living in a dire situation.

So how can a society on the verge of complete collapse fight an invisible enemy that is threatening the world’s richest economies?

Cases reported in early March came from people traveling back to Lebanon from Iran or Italy.

Now Lebanese who have not left the country have the virus. On March 18, Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport was closed.

The country currently has 333 cases, of which there have been six deaths, according to the Health Ministry.

“Until they closed it, we were receiving voice notes from people at the airport that Iranian flights were still coming into the country,” Marian Wehbe, who runs her own PR agency, told Arab News.

“It’s the citizens who’ve been responsible for trying to contain coronavirus. The citizens, not the government, have ensured that everyone stays home for their safety.”




The Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) was established in 1993 to support Palestinian and Syrian women and their families who live in refugee camps in Lebanon. (Supplied)

Due to the virus, everything is now closed in Lebanon except supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals.

“Last week, when I came to the hospital I didn’t know if I’d live or die,” said Nadine Sfeir, 43, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week after returning from a ski trip to Courchevel, France. She is currently in quarantine in Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut.

“I had some chills, a low temperature and a stuffy nose,” she said of the symptoms. “I went to do the test on March 8 and it was positive. My husband is still negative, but my mother, who is 68, has it. She saw me before I was diagnosed but has mild symptoms.”

Sfeir said all COVID-19 patients are locked in their rooms and have to undergo two tests with negative results before they can leave the hospital.

Testing for the virus is a problem in Lebanon if you want to do so privately. At 150,000 Lebanese pounds ($100), a COVID-19 test is expensive. The government provides free testing at hospitals only if you have symptoms.

“Imagine what a family of five who can’t make ends meet would have to do in order to get the entire family tested?” said Basel Dalloul, founder of the Dalloul Art Foundation in Beirut.

“I doubt any of the numbers in Lebanon, no matter where you get them from, are reflective of the true situation on the ground.”

A Lebanese health-care professional said on condition of anonymity: “Countries are melting down because of corona, but we in Lebanon melted down before corona.

“Our government is bankrupt, our equipment and our resources are scarce. The way to address this crisis is for the Lebanese people to stick together, and for the private and public sectors to work jointly to contain the virus.”

There have been reported talks about transforming some hotels into quarantine facilities for people suspected of having COVID-19.

“There’s no way to stop the virus,” said the health care professional. “The better we are at flattening the curve by having people socially isolate, the more successful we’ll be at diminishing the damage of the virus.”

Dalloul said in the absence of accurate data, Lebanese are “petrified.”

The small Mediterranean country, which has a population of approximately 6.8 million, is also home to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees alone, and according to a census held by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee in 2018, there are around 175,000 Palestinian refugees. So in Lebanon, there is one refugee for every four citizens.

According to the World Bank, roughly a third of Lebanese live in poverty, up 27.4 percent from 2011-12.

The UN Development Programme estimates that roughly a third of Lebanese live on less than $4 per day.

How are grassroots organizations helping the destitute and refugees against COVID-19?

“We’re still welcoming women to benefit from our services via online calls if a woman wants to talk,” Zahra Dirani, media coordinator at the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering (RDFL), told Arab News.

“We’ve closed our doors for the time being, but if there’s an emergency case, now we can meet the woman and decide on an action plan for when businesses open again.”




The Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering (RDFL) is one of the groups spreading awareness about women’s rights and helping those living in difficult conditions during the crisis. (Supplied)
 

Founded in 1976, the RDFL is a feminist, secular, nongovernmental organization advocating for and raising awareness about women’s rights in Lebanon.

“There’s a plan to make group calls among the social workers to support women in need, but it’s unsure how well this will work given the weak wifi in the country. It’s a challenge but we’re still working,” said Dirani.

“In my village, located in the Bekaa Valley, it was recently decided that Syrian refugees can’t leave their camps from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. because of coronavirus.”

Olfat Mahmoud is a Palestinian refugee and cofounder of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO), established in 1993 to support Palestinian and Syrian women and their families who live in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Mahmoud also works in the Bourj El-Barajneh camp, where there are both Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

“The problem is that the camps are overcrowded,” she said. Bourj El-Barajneh is 1 sq. km in size and holds more than 50,000 refugees.

“We’ve been doing awareness sessions in the camp on how to protect against COVID-19. We send them leaflets and communicate through the mosque so that everyone can hear from home about proper hygiene — something the women implement,” Mahmoud said.

“Until now we have no cases, but if one person gets infected it means that 50,000 will get infected.”

The shutdown of the country is galvanizing civil society. Palestinian refugees — barred from working in Lebanon, and who normally do work in construction and as cleaners — have no money to buy food until the lockdown ends.

“Neighbors now share food, and through the PWHO we’re providing as much food as we can now,” said Mahmoud.

Wehbe said: “We’re in a state of crisis, and we need these organizations more than ever. We need constant actions of solidarity.”


‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
Updated 11 April 2021

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

‘Accident’ strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
  • Behrouz Kamalvandi said there were no injuries nor pollution caused by the incident
  • Iran later called the incident sabotage

TEHRAN: Iran's Natanz nuclear site suffered a problem Sunday involving its electrical distribution grid just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges that more quickly enrich uranium, state TV reported. It was the latest incident to strike one of Tehran's most-secured sites amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers.
State TV quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's civilian nuclear program, announcing the incident.
Kamalvandi said there were no injuries or pollution cause by the incident.
The word state television used in its report attributed to Kamalvandi in Farsi can be used for both “accident” and “incident.” It didn't immediately clarify the report, which ran at the bottom of its screen on its live broadcast. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the civilian arm of its nuclear program, did not immediately issue a formal statement about the incident on its website.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Israel, Iran's regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out an attack there, as well as launching other assaults, as world powers now negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant, injecting them with the uranium gas and beginning their rapid spinning. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran's first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since then-President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes, but fears about Tehran having the ability to make a bomb saw world powers reach the deal with the Islamic Republic in 2015.
The deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for it limiting its program and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep a close watch on its work.


Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
Updated 11 April 2021

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
  • The country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence
  • Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot

TRIPOLI: Libya's new unity government launched a long-delayed COVID-19 vaccination programme on Saturday after receiving some 160,000 vaccine doses over the past week, with the prime minister receiving his jab on live television.
While Libya is richer than its neighbours due to oil exports, the country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence, and it has struggled to cope during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot, without saying which vaccine he had been given. At least 100,000 of the doses that arrived this week were Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Dbeibeh's interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month after emerging through a UN-facilitated process with a mandate to unify the country, improve state services and oversee the run-up to a national election in December.
Dbeibeh's government has framed the delivery of vaccines and the national roll-out as evidence that it is improving the lives of ordinary Libyans after replacing two warring administrations that ruled in the east and west of the country.
"Through the political consultations and the efforts of the prime minister, the vaccine is available," said Health Minister Ali Al-Zanati, who has said previously the government had so far ordered enough doses to inoculate 1.4 million of the country's more than six million people.
Libya's National Centre for Disease Control has said more than 400,000 people have registered for vaccination in more than 400 centres around the country.
Libya has recorded more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, though UN envoys have said the true figures are likely far higher.
"I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never," said Ali al-Hadi, a shop owner, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.
Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.
"We hope the Health Ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients," said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33. 


Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
A file photo shows a dredger trying to free the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given long vessel across the waterway of Egypt's Suez Canal. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger

Suez Canal receives Middle East’s largest dredger
  • Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies

CAIRO: Egypt has welcomed the largest dredger of its kind in the Middle East, the “Mohab Mamish,” on board the heavy transport vessel Xiang Rui Kou.

Dredgers are advanced drilling equipment used by the Suez Canal to cleanse the waterway of sand and mud deposits, contributing to its expansion and deepening.

The Suez Canal showed its reliance on dredgers in the rescue and re-float operation of the giant container ship “Ever Given,” which ran aground in the shipping course on March 23. The incident caused the canal’s closure for six days.

Sources said that the dredger, inaugurated by the Dutch IHC Shipyard, would begin its new duties within the Suez Canal fleet soon.

The “Mohab Mamish” has a length of 147.4 meters, a width of 23 m, a depth of 7.7 m, and a draft of 5.5 m. It has a productivity of 3,600 cubic meters of sand per hour over a length of 4 km.

Its maximum drilling depth is 35 m and the dredger has control, safety and security systems matching the latest standards of international supervisory bodies.

The head of the Suez Canal Authority, Osama Rabie, said the “Mohab Mamish” was one of the vessels used to boost the canal’s development and that the dredging fleet was the main pillar in the strategy for developing the canal’s shipping course.

It provided the best guarantee to maintain the canal’s 24-meter depth, allowing the crossing of giant ships with large submersibles.

Rabie added that the canal’s dredging fleet had recently expanded its work, joining in with the development of Egypt’s ports and the disinfection of lakes.

IHC is working on launching another dredger for the Suez Canal called “Hussein Tantawi.” The two dredgers have a combined value of €300 million ($357.06 million).

Rabie also said the authority’s machines would be developed and the tensile strength would be adjusted to carry 250,000 tons, in comparison to the current 160,000 tons to match the tonnage and size of ships crossing the shipping course.


Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
Updated 11 April 2021

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US
  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant
  • The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran on Saturday started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in breach of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb its nuclear program.

The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington said it had offered “very serious” ideas on rescuing the agreement, which collapsed in 2018 when the US withdrew, but was waiting for Tehran to reciprocate.

Tehran’s response came on Saturday, when President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

Rouhani also launched tests on the “mechanical stability” of its latest-generation IR-9 centrifuges, and remotely opened a centrifuge assembly factory to replace a plant that was badly damaged in a July 2020 explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

Under the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers, Iran is permitted to use only “first-generation” IR-1 centrifuges for production, and to test a limited number of IR-4 and IR-5 devices.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping up its nuclear enrichment to levels prohibited under the JCPOA.

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Iran’s latest move follows an opening round of talks in Vienna Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the deal on bringing the US back into it.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but is relying on the EU as an intermediary, got off to a good start.

However, US allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, believe any revived deal should also cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Iran has demanded that the US lift all sanctions imposed by Trump before it resumes compliance with the JCPOA. The US insists that Iran must act first.

“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” a US official said.

But the official said the US was waiting for its efforts to be reciprocated by Iran.

Iran is also demanding an end to all US restrictions, but the JCPOA covers only nuclear sanctions and not US measures taken in response to human rights and terrorism issues.

(With AFP)


Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
Egyptian Christians worshippers attend Christmas Eve mass at the Coptic Catholic St. Mark Church in Minya city, in Cairo on January 6, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise

Coptic prayers suspended in Egypt as virus cases rise
  • Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions

CAIRO: Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has suspended Mass prayers in seven dioceses following a rise in daily coronavirus cases.

Prayers were suspended at the dioceses of the Virgin Mary in Fayoum, Archangel Michael in Aswan, Asna and Armant in Luxor, Akhmim in Sohag, Tahta and Juhaina in Sohag, Nag Hammadi in Qena, and Sohag.

“The suspension follows a significant increase in coronavirus cases recently,” said Besada El-Anba, bishop of Akhmim.

He said that priests will continue daily Mass with a number of deacons without people attending for an indefinite period.

“The diocese of Aswan started suspending Coptic prayers in churches during the holy week and resurrection,” the bishop added.

“Mass prayers will be limited to priests and a limited number of deacons,” said Bishop Hani Bakhoum of Sohag.

Anba Kyrillos, bishop of Nag Hammadi, said that the suspension of prayers will begin on Monday and will continue on until further notice, depending on health advice.

Prayers will be limited to priests and a few deacons during the restrictions.

Other dioceses have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak of the virus, including holding Mass with 25 percent of the church’s capacity, stopping church activities, services, Sunday schools and conferences, and closing cemeteries.

Priests have also been advised against making home visits.