BEIRUT: Lebanon has suspended repatriation flights until April 27 for thousands of nationals trapped abroad by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.
The Lebanese Cabinet committee tasked with bringing home stranded citizens said the move was designed “to maintain the capacity of hospitals and hotels designated for isolation and to re-evaluate the measures taken.”
Meanwhile, Alwaleed Bin Talal Humanitarian Foundation announced that it would bear the costs of flying home students from Italy, France and Ukraine, while Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon’s national flag carrier, has offered a 50 percent discount for students and allowed their family members to pay for flight tickets in Lebanese pounds.
The number of recorded COVID-19 cases in Lebanon on Wednesday rose by 17 – including five nationals returning from abroad – to 658.
There were 34 people newly infected by the virus among the 2,317 citizens returned to Lebanon between April 6 and 13 on 20 commercial flights, and 356 returnees on 53 private jets, that landed at Rafic Hariri International Airport on the permission of Lebanese authorities.
The COVID-19 cases had flown in from the UK, France, Spain, Liberia, Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE. The remainder of the returnees were still undergoing two weeks of home isolation to ensure that they had not contracted the deadly virus.
Thousands of people have registered with Lebanese embassies around the world to return home because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they have been put on waiting lists drawn up by the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Some have been unable to cover their expenses due to the interruption of their business and difficulties in getting bank transfers in dollars from Lebanon, a problem which has particularly affected students.
Abdel Salam Marini, Alwaleed Bin Talal Humanitarian Foundation’s manager, said: “We are coordinating with the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we have informed them that we will cover the cost of a full plane of students from France and another from Italy and there are hundreds of these (students) still stuck in these two countries.”
Two MEA flights, funded by the foundation, brought back 110 students last Saturday from Rome and 55 from Paris.
Marini added: “We are ready to bear the expenses of the return of more students, especially those stranded in northern Italy, and we propose to send a plane to Milan so that students can reach the airport without being exposed to infection during their movements. We will also bear the expenses of about 600 students who are still in France.”
The cost of returning Lebanese students from Ukraine would also be footed by the foundation, he said. “About 400 students are studying in the semi-free universities of this country (Ukraine) and their families cannot afford to bring them back. We are ready and communicating with (Lebanese) Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti who asked us to sponsor these students and we agreed.”
Alwaleed Bin Talal Humanitarian Foundation was established in 2003 and its initiatives and programs in Lebanon focus on addressing the social and medical needs of the country.