BEIRUT: Lebanese expats began their return to the country on Sunday after the government reopened Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport to receive flights carrying nationals stranded overseas by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
A plane from Riyadh carrying 78 passengers was followed by another from Abu Dhabi carrying 79. Planes carrying Lebanese citizens from Lagos and Abidjan were due to land on Sunday night.
The second repatriation phase begins on Tuesday with planes to Paris, Madrid, and Kinshasa.
The first phase was accompanied by security and preventive measures inside the aircraft, on the ground, and in the airport’s vicinity. Families of expats were not allowed to meet them at the airport. The returnees underwent tests and were sanitized before leaving the airport. They had security escorts to hotels in Beirut and other regions. They will be quarantined in their houses or hotels according to their condition.
The repatriation was supervised by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who went to the airport.
Diab urged people to strictly adhere to the rules announced by the government and warned of penalties against violators.
Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said the repatriation process was being carried out in phases because “the medical mechanism in Lebanon cannot handle more than 400 people at the same time, and this is why four planes will carry Lebanese expatriates every few days.” She added that the goal was to also maintain Lebanon’s health security.
Dr. Pierre Abi Hanna, the infectious diseases doctor responsible for receiving COVID-19 cases at Rafik Hariri Hospital, said many patients had recovered, notably Saudis and Iranians, and that there were no more patients on respirators.
“An elderly patient who was in a critical condition suddenly improved two days ago and is today in the general ward after he was placed on a respirator,” he told Arab News.
As of Sunday, there were 527 cases in Lebanon and a death toll of 18. Last month authorities announced the closure of Lebanon’s borders, including the country’s main international airport. A lockdown means all public and private gatherings are banned. Core institutions remain open. There are severe restrictions on traffic and people have been ordered to stay at home.
“If the preventive measures remain in place, we will not see an incalculable spread of coronavirus,” Hanna added. “We need to maintain these measures, especially when it comes to those returning from abroad, so that we do not return to the first circle that we overcame, namely the closure of land and air crossings. We are now trying to avoid reaching a peak in the number of cases. The lab tests for 500 people, for example, show that only 20 were tested positive. On the bright side, more than 55 percent of our COVID-19 cases have recovered, and this encourages us to continue our work. People must preserve what we have accomplished by staying home.”
Christians in Lebanon celebrated Palm Sunday in their homes as all churches were closed.
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi held the mass alone in Bkerke Church, and it was broadcasted live. He said that participation is spiritual and prayed to God to “rid the world of coronavirus and restore life to Earth.”