Lebanon on the brink of a virus ‘catastrophe’

Special Lebanon on the brink of a virus ‘catastrophe’
Lebanese people celebrate the New Year in Beirut, early Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 03 January 2021

Lebanon on the brink of a virus ‘catastrophe’

Lebanon on the brink of a virus ‘catastrophe’
  • Government has ‘lost control’ of COVID-19, says health committee 
  • Cases could exceed 5,000 a day due to New Year partying

BEIRUT: Lebanon faces a coronavirus “catastrophe,” health chiefs warned on Saturday, after thousands of people defied health warnings and enjoyed Christmas and New Year parties.

Hospitals are overwhelmed, intensive care units are almost full and medical authorities fear a surge in cases to 5,000 a day when the full consequences of the holiday “party season” strike home.

Lebanon has recorded 183,888 coronavirus cases since February, including 1,466 deaths, and last week it hit a daily record of more than 3,500 new cases.

After imposing tight restrictions in November to curb the spread of the pandemic, the government relaxed rules before the December holidays, pushed a curfew back to 3 a.m. and allowed nightclubs and bars to reopen.

The “gatherings and private parties” in December had fueled a dramatic rise in cases, said Petra Khoury, head of the national COVID-19 task force.

The task force on Saturday recommended a full lockdown of three to six weeks and a new curfew, a decision supported by the parliamentary health committee. A decision will be made on Monday.

MP Assem Araji, a cardiologist who heads the parliamentary health committee, said that 100 patients had entered ICUs in the first two days of January.

“The death toll has reached 422 in one month, and the occupancy rate of ICUs has become 95 percent, which necessitates imposing a three-week full closure across the country as soon as possible because the health sector is also in danger and heading toward disaster. There are about 2,000 doctors and nurses in quarantine as they have contracted COVID-19,” he said.

“Hospital emergency departments are full of patients,” the committee said. “There are only 51 vacant intensive care units out of 515 rooms in all Lebanese hospitals. The remaining ICUs are filled with critical cases.”

The secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, Georges Kettaneh, said that hospitals in Beirut were no longer able to accommodate new cases. “We are contemplating with the concerned parties the possibility of transferring these patients to hospitals outside Beirut and Mount Lebanon.”

Some hospitals were prioritizing young people and not the elderly, while others were left with no vacant beds at all to receive patients, he said. “Red Cross volunteers are transferring coronavirus patients from Beirut and Mount Lebanon to Nabatiyeh, Hermel, Akkar, and other areas. There are people who are dying in their homes.”

Former Health Minister Mohamed Jawad Khalifa said “blunders” and a lack of planning had brought Lebanon to this point.

“The closure to be imposed is pointless if the state has no plans to take responsibility,” he told Arab News. “One party in the state should have taken a decision, not 50 parties that express their opinions through committees. The large number of opinions has crippled us.

“When we leave municipalities to decide which villages to isolate and which to open, and when ministers and unions express many opinions during meetings of committees concerned with the outbreak of COVID-19, each of which has its own agenda, and recommendations are ping-ponged between committees, it becomes too late to fix things.”

Dr. Firas Al-Abyad is director of the Hariri Governmental University Hospital, which is dedicated to receiving COVID-19 cases.

He said: “The healthcare system will undergo a difficult test in the coming weeks, and time does not allow for crying. An urgent response is required.”

There is disagreement and recrimination between people with economic interests and healthcare officials about who is responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19 during the holidays. 

The owners of tourist establishments, restaurants, and cafes refused to close during the festive period, and they sought to blame people who did not comply with the preventive measures.

The secretary-general of the Tourism and Trade Unions Federation, Jean Beiruti, insisted on allowing tourist establishments that complied with the measures to continue operating and supported closing businesses that violated them.