How COVID-19 precautions may have averted a higher Beirut toll

How COVID-19 precautions may have averted a higher Beirut toll
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Updated 06 August 2020

How COVID-19 precautions may have averted a higher Beirut toll

How COVID-19 precautions may have averted a higher Beirut toll
  • Remote work and summer working hours may have saved many lives in Lebanon’s stricken capital
  • Employees of media companies and service sectors feel grateful to pandemic precautionary measures

BEIRUT: The new glass-fronted buildings in the Beirut port area housed the offices of many media and business enterprises. But all that remained after Tuesday night’s massive explosions were concrete mounds and twisted steel.

The final casualty figures are still unknown, with many missing and the wounded still not counted. The toll could have been much higher, but for two factors: Summer working hours and remote work.

Many employees finished work at 3 p.m. and many others were working from home as part of the precautionary and preventive measures against COVID-19. Those who were in the vicinity have harrowing tales.


In one of those modern buildings, the editorial and technical support team of An-Nahar newspaper had gathered to launch their newest project, An-Nahar Al-Arabi.

“We were in a hall in the upper floor about to end the celebrations and editors of the newspaper’s print edition had started to enter the building when we heard the first explosion,” said journalist Rana Najjar, who suffered minor head injuries.

“The port is opposite our offices and some of us had started to take pictures when we saw the fire. Then a huge explosion followed. Some of us ran under the desks or scrambled farther in search of safety. Others were stuck in their offices as the ceiling collapsed. Shards of broken glass injured many.”




Building fronts across Beirut were shattered by the force of the blast. (AN Photo/Najia Houssari)

The newspaper was still maintaining a limited-staff schedule because of the pandemic, according to Najjar.

“Casualties could have been much higher if all the employees were present in the building,” she told Arab News. “We could not head to the stairways and get out of the building right away because of the extensive damage. Once outside, we started helping the injured.”

Fifteen colleagues were seriously injured, with others suffering slight wounds, Najjar said.




The new glass-fronted buildings in the Beirut port area housed the offices of many media and business enterprises. (AN Photo/Najia Houssari)

“A security officer next to Al-Jurdiya building was seriously injured, while a Syrian man set out to search for his brother who was repairing the water tank on the rooftop. I stopped passing cars and motorcycles to send the wounded to the hospitals.”

Najjar found a colleague, Salwa Baalbaki, with a dislocated shoulder and serious hand injuries. “I stopped a motorcyclist and told him to take her to the hospital,” Najjar recalled. “I found an Ethiopian girl bleeding from the head and started helping her.”




A view shows the aftermath of yesterday's blast at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut, on August 5, 2020. (AFP)

The journalist then drove to the hospital emergency room in her own car to seek treatment for her own injuries.

Journalist Ibrahim Haidar, also of An-Nahar, who suffered injuries to the head and face, said he was at his desk writing when he heard the first explosion.

“I got up and went to report to the local desk what I saw,” he told Arab News. “As I was returning to my desk, another massive explosion tore everything apart.”




Amjad Iskandar, head of the Beirut office of Independent Arabia, said remote work saved many lives and protected completed assignments on home computers. (AN Photo/Najia Houssari)

Once outside the building, a motorcyclist stopped to pick up Haidar. “I did not ride behind him because I started to get dizzy. Another man took me in his car to the AUB Medical Hospital, but it was full of injured people,” he said.

“I then went to CMC Hospital, which refused to treat my wounds. So I went to Khoury Hospital, where I found 200 people waiting for treatment. They stitched my head wounds and asked me to go home. Two hours later, I started bleeding again, so I went back to the hospital for more stitches.”

Haidar said the newspaper management decided in March to let employees work from home because of the pandemic. “Two months ago, we returned to the office, but the website employees kept working from home. Hence they avoided this disaster,”  he said.




The interior of a church is pictured in the aftermath of yesterday's blast that tore through Lebanon's capital and resulted from the ignition of a huge depot of ammonium nitrate at Beirut's port, on August 5, 2020. (AFP)

Amjad Iskandar, head of the Beirut office of Independent Arabia, said remote work saved many lives and protected completed assignments on home computers.

Ahmed Al-Maghrabi, also of Independent Arabia, was more emphatic: “Thank you, coronavirus.”

Employees at companies that keep Lebanon’s service economy ticking had similar experiences.

Medgulf Insurance Co., which employs 300 people, has offices in two buildings near the port. “We used to stay at work until 6 p.m. before the hours got reduced because of the pandemic,” Ashraf Bakkar, the company’s chief underwriter, told Arab News.

“Many of us work from home. Those in the office on Tuesday decided to leave work at 4 p.m., shutting down the server and keeping one employee on stand-by duty. Luckily for him, at the time of the explosion, he was in the bathroom. Had he been at his desk, he would be dead or at least seriously injured.”


Twitter: @najiahoussari


Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting
Explosions light-up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the Palestinian enclave, early on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 44 min ago

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting

Israel-Gaza violence erupts for first time since end of last month’s fighting
  • A Hamas spokesman, confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem

GAZA: Israel mounted air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the first since the end of 11 days of cross-border fighting last month, in response to incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian territory.
The flare-up, a first test for Israel’s new government, followed a march in East Jerusalem on Tuesday by Jewish nationalists that had drawn threats of action by Hamas, the ruling militant group in Gaza.
The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked Hamas armed compounds in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis and was “ready for all scenarios, including renewed fighting in the face of continued terrorist acts emanating from Gaza.”
The strikes, the military said, came in response to the launching of the balloons, which the Israeli fire brigade reported caused 20 blazes in open fields in communities near the Gaza border.
A Hamas spokesman, confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem.
Hours earlier, thousands of flag-waving Israelis congregated around the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City before heading to Judaism’s holy Western Wall, drawing Palestinian anger and condemnation.
Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move that has not won international recognition, regards the entire city as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state that would include the West Bank and Gaza.
Prior to Tuesday’s march, Israel beefed up its deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in anticipation of possible rocket attacks from Gaza.
But as the marchers began to disperse after nightfall in Jerusalem, there was no sign of rocket fire from the enclave.
The procession was originally scheduled for May 10 as part of “Jerusalem Day” festivities that celebrate Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem.
At the last minute, that march was diverted away from the Damascus Gate and the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, but the move was not enough to dissuade Hamas from firing rockets toward Jerusalem, attacks that set off last month’s round of fighting.


Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
Activists were enraged after video showing disposal of 20 tons of baby formula circulated on social media. (Supplied)
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
  • The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities

BEIRUT: Lebanon has been running short of infant baby formula for months as the country has been dealing with a severe economic crisis. A video showing the disposal of 20 tons of the baby milk substitute has been circulating on social media and has only added to the public’s frustrations.
The Discriminatory Public Prosecution has commissioned the information department from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) to investigate as infant baby formula — which is supposed to be subsidized — has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.
“There is a kind of social solidarity and government policy to control prices in the time of crises in the world, however, when there is a shortage of infant formula in the Lebanese market, it is not permitted to see it destroyed in front of our very own eyes,” activist Mahmoud Fakih told Arab News.
“Why did the state not prosecute the traders who monopolized and hid this milk? It seems that people are the last thing on the mind of traders who insist on continuing to make profits in dollars.”
The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities. Staggering inflation has impeded imports and slashed purchasing power.
The video surfaced on social media after Hani Bohsali, president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products, and Drinks, said “subsidies have been lifted on infant formula for ages one to three years old.”
The Lebanese government is avoiding lifting subsidies on items, fearing the resentful reactions and leaving the matter into the hands of the Banque Du Liban (BDL), which settles for the cessation of payments to importers on the basis of a lack of funds in dollars.
In defense of the infant baby formula disposal, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) said: “It was requested to destroy these items in 2019 and 2020 in waste treatment facilities run by the CDR, in preparation for burying the waste in the sanitary landfill. This procedure is adopted for all the goods required to be damaged by their owners or by the competent official authorities.”

HIGHLIGHT

Internal Security Forces (ISF) were to investigate as baby formula has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.

The company responsible for distributing food items in Lebanon said in a statement: “These expired products were withdrawn from the market three months before their expiry date in order to be disposed of and were in compliance with the protocols and expiry dates. Most of these products date back to 2018, 2019, and early 2020, and the process to obtain an agreement to destroy them required more than a year because of the total lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Bohsali pointed his finger at the BDL.
“The files of the infant formula for ages one to three years old, which is included in the subsidized items, have been withdrawn from BDL,” he said.
“The goods will be delivered to the markets at an unsubsidized rate. As for the price of milk for ages below one year old, it is subsidized, similarly to medicine, and traders cannot set its price.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun weighed in and called on the relevant agencies and departments to “strictly pursue monopolists and exploiters of the current circumstances who increase the prices and make illegal profits.”
According to his media office, Aoun added that “procedures were taken to address the fuel, medicine, medical supplies, and infant formula’s crisis.”
A joint report issued by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF in May warned that “canceling the only remaining form of social support funded by the Lebanese state will lead to a significant deterioration in the living standards of the poor and the middle class, if no comprehensive, sufficient and permanent social protection guarantees are implemented.”
In a previous statement, UNICEF warned: “the poorest families might face levels of deprivation we have not witnessed for many years.”
It is a critical time for the most vulnerable Lebanese citizens, said UNICEF Lebanon Representative Yukie Mokuo.
“If gaps are not quickly filled through strong long-term social assistance programs and at a time when most Lebanese face very difficult circumstances, those who are suffering from specific vulnerabilities will be simply left without support,” she said.
According to the video on social media, the infant baby formula disposal took place Tuesday morning. It provided even more ammunition for civil-society organizations, which held a protest march through the heart of Beirut on Tuesday afternoon.
The General Labor Union is scheduled to go on strike on Thursday to demand the formation of a new government. More labor unions continue to announce plans of joining the strike, including a syndicate of bank employees.
While waiting for a new government to rescue the country, there has been a renewed scene of cars queuing up near gas stations. Aggressive confrontations have occurred between drivers waiting in lines and desperate for gas.
Georges Fayyad, who heads the Association of Petroleum Importing Companies in Lebanon, expects the price of gasoline to increase if subsidies are completely lifted.
“Fuel-importing companies distributed millions of gasoline in the market on Monday and Tuesday, however, this is a temporary solution that will only last for 15 days,” Fayyad said.
“The decision to lift subsidies is not controlled by BDL, which clearly stated that it does not have any money. The decision should be made by the government.”


Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a picture of him with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at an election rally in Tehran. (AFP)
Updated 16 June 2021

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions

Raisi accused of using position at judiciary for mass executions
  • Raisi’s only place is in the dock, not the presidency
  • Track record of Iran’s vote frontrunner — who has victory in sights on Friday — dismays activists

PARIS: Ebrahim Raisi, the favorite in Iran’s presidential election, has used his position at the heart of the judiciary for grave rights violations, including mass executions of political prisoners, activists say.

They say Raisi — who now has victory in his sights on Friday after even conservative rivals were disqualified in vetting — should face international justice rather than lead his country.
At 60, the mid-ranking cleric is still relatively young for a figure who has held a succession of key positions, starting almost immediately after the fall of the shah in the revolution of 1979.
At just 20, he was appointed prosecutor for the district of Karaj and then for Hamadan province, before in 1985 being promoted to deputy Tehran prosecutor.
It was in this role, campaigners allege, that Raisi played a key part in the executions of thousands of opposition prisoners — mostly suspected members of the proscribed People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) — when, activists say, he was part of a four-man “Death Committee” that sent convicts to their death without a shred of due process.
Raisi, seen as a possible successor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has denied personal involvement in the 1988 killings, but also praised the decision to go ahead with the executions.
He subsequently became chief Tehran prosecutor in 1989, and then in 2004, deputy judiciary chief, a position he held for 10 years. Since 2019, he has served as head of the judiciary.
“Raisi’s only place is in the dock, not the presidency,” said Shadi Sadr, executive director of London-based Justice for Iran, which campaigns against impunity for crimes in Iran. “The mere fact he is currently the head of judiciary and running for president demonstrates the level of impunity that the perpetrators of the heinous crimes enjoy in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” she said.
The 1988 killings, which took place from July to September that year allegedly on the direct orders of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remain a near taboo in modern Iran. Most rights groups and historians say between 4,000 and 5,000 were killed, but the political wing of the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), puts the figure at closer to 30,000.
Hossein Abedini, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the NCRI, described Raisi as a “stone hearted killer” with a “40-year track record of repression.”
Last year, seven special UN rapporteurs told the Iranian government that “the situation may amount to crimes against humanity” and urged an international probe if Tehran did not show full accountability.
Amnesty International came to a similar conclusion in a 2018 report, which identified Raisi as a member of the Tehran “death commission” that secretly sent thousands to their deaths in Evin Prison in Tehran and Gohardasht Prison in Karaj.
Former prisoners, now living in exile who said they had survived the massacres, testified they had personally seen Raisi working as a member of the commission.
The vast majority of the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves and Iran continues to conceal the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their remains, it charged.


Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader
Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, speaks in Kadugli, Sudan, on May 2. (GettyImages)
Updated 16 June 2021

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader

Sudan says progress made in peace talks with rebel leader
  • Sudan’s transitional government has been engaging in peace talks with rebel groups over the past two years

JUBA, CAIRO: Sudanese authorities adjourned talks on Tuesday with the most powerful rebel leader from the country’s south, saying they had agreed on more than three quarters of a framework peace deal.
A deal with Abdelaziz Al-Hilu’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) would be a big step in efforts to resolve decades of internal conflict in Sudan following the overthrow of former leader Omar Bashir in 2019.
Some rebels from the south and from the troubled western region of Darfur signed what was meant to be a comprehensive peace agreement last year.
But Al-Hilu, who has control over significant forces and territory from his stronghold in South Kordofan, held out, as did the leader of the most active Darfur group, Abdel Wahed El-Nur.
Earlier this year, the SPLM-N and Sudan signed a declaration of principles to guarantee freedom of worship and separate religion from the state — a key demand for Al-Hilu.
That paved the way for peace talks that have been held over recent weeks in the capital of neighboring South Sudan, Juba.
Sudan’s ruling council, formed under a military-civilian power-sharing deal after Bashir’s ouster, cited the lead negotiator at the talks as saying all but four out of 19 points had been resolved.
A senior SPLM-N official said more than three quarters of a framework deal had been agreed on.
SPLM-N spokesperson Mohammad Kuku refused to give details on the points of disagreement, saying consultations would continue ahead of the next round of talks.
Tut Galuak, a security adviser to South Sudan’s president who led mediation efforts said Sudan and the SPLM-N agreed to end negotiations and conduct further consultations over their disputed points.
He said the two sides have reached “significant understandings of the disputed issues,” and that “only four out of 19 points” remain unsolved. He did not elaborate.
Galuak’s comments came in a statement released by Sudan’s ruling sovereign council.
Also in the statement, Gen. Shams Eddin Kabashi, a member of the sovereign council and the government’s chief negotiator, said the sides would return to the negotiating table “once conditions are more favorable.”
The rebel group’s chief negotiator, Ammar Amount, said they have agreed on between 75 percent to 80 percent of the deal and the remaining issues need further consultations with their leaders.
Neither side gave a time frame for a return to the talks.
SPLM-N operates in an area inhabited mainly by minority Christians and followers of indigenous beliefs, who had long complained of discrimination at the hands of Khartoum and Bashir’s regime.
Sudan’s transitional government has been engaging in peace talks with rebel groups over the past two years. It’s looking to stabilize the country and help its fragile path to democracy survive following the military’s overthrow of Bashir in April 2019. It reached a peace deal with another rebel alliance in October.


Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government
Updated 15 June 2021

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

Biden names Israel ambassador days after new government

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated veteran Democratic Party official Thomas Nides to be US ambassador to Israel, filling the post two days after the formation of a new government eager to renew ties.
Nides, a former top banker at Morgan Stanley who has spent his adult life in Democratic politics, served in the US State Department when Barack Obama was president and defended funding for the Palestinians.
He would mark a sharp departure from the last US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a forceful advocate for hawkish Israeli policies who was tapped by former president Donald Trump after serving his company as a bankruptcy lawyer.
Nides grew up in a Jewish home in Duluth, Minnesota, where his father was temple president. He is not known as an ideological figure on the Middle East or other issues.
While serving as deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Nides fought attempts by Republicans in Congress to stop US funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees -- a step taken by Trump but reversed by Biden.
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, wrote in a 2011 book that Nides once called him to argue passionately - and profanely - against attempts in Congress to defund the UN cultural agency UNESCO after it admitted Palestine as a member state.
Nides, Oren wrote, said with colorful language that Israel would not want to defund UNESCO as it has played a role in education about the Holocaust.
Nides, whose nomination had been rumored for weeks, needs to be confirmed by the Senate, where the Democrats are narrowly in control.
His nomination was announced two days after the fall from power from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister who had toxic relations with Democrats after he rallied against Obama's Iran policy, rejected moves for a Palestinian state and aligned himself with Republicans.
Biden has quickly congratulated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is a staunch defender of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but governs in coalition with centrists and leftists.