BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities declared a state of health emergency and imposed a curfew on Monday, to confront the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The curfew will run day and night between Jan. 14 and 25, subject to extension, and will be enforced by the Lebanese Armed Forces. There will be exceptions granted to some professions and businesses, as part of the full lockdown declared in Lebanon since Jan. 7.
This decision was taken after hospitals lost their capacity to treat patients with the disease, with ambulances transporting patients moving from site to site in search of empty beds in emergency departments.
One Red Cross paramedic posted on his Facebook account a text which went viral, which said that his “cellphone has been ringing since 5 in the morning with people infected with the virus and their families asking for help.”
The paramedic called on “all those who are still violating the preventive and precautionary measures, to head to hospitals and watch the tragedy that they are causing.”
He said: “We bypassed the stage of non-availability of beds to the stage of inability to go to hospitals. Doctors are examining patients in their cars in front of emergency departments.”
The paramedic said that what is happening in front of hospitals is “similar to what happened after the explosion at the Beirut port on Aug. 4. However, with the pandemic, we are living everyday a new Aug. 4 tragedy.
“Medical staff are exhausted and orthopedic surgeons, obstetricians, and even retired doctors may have to engage in treating coronavirus patients, and we may reach a phase where we might need to choose who would be accepted to intensive care rooms,” he added. “So, please do not go out of your houses.”
Dr. Firass Abiad, director of Rafic Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), estimated at 30,000 the number of patients who contracted the virus between Jan. 3 and 10, with 120 deaths.
During the Supreme Defense Council meeting, the country’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, said: “We have reached the stage of extreme danger.
“Some people in Lebanon think that COVID-19 is a lie. We are facing a horrific health situation,” he continued. “The disease has spiraled out of control because of people’s stubbornness and their insubordination to the precautionary and preventive measures.
“Our duty is to protect people from themselves. Either we control the situation with a full and strict lockdown, or we might be heading towards a Lebanese model worse than the Italian one.”
The decisions of the council included closing down banks and governmental institutions for 10 days, subject to renewal, whilst the airports remain open for now.
Eng. Fadi El-Hassan, manager of Rafik Hariri International Airport (RHIA), said that the percentage of infection cases among arrivals was no higher than three per 1,000 from the total infection cases in Lebanon.
The council’s decision caused some disquiet, with Minister of Health Hamad Hassan not attending a meeting of the ministerial committee concerned with fighting the disease in protest at the government’s failure to implement a full lockdown over the Christmas and New Year period.
He called on the committee to “endorse the decisions of the scientific committee at the Ministry of Health, due to its accurate approach of the situation, in order to reach safety.”
The country’s medical establishment is unanimous in believing the increase in infections is due to socializing during the New Year celebrations.
The American University of Beirut Crisis Observatory criticized the state’s “failure in managing the COVID-19 crisis,” calling it “part of a pattern deeply rooted in the weak management of crises in Lebanon.”
Bachir Khodr, governor of Baalbek El-Hermel, which is witnessing a sharp increase in the number of infection cases, told Arab News: “I did my best and took the most extreme measures. However, there are people who were cooperative, and others who ridiculed me.”
The governor added: “We cannot dedicate a policeman for each citizen, and we cannot storm into houses to ensure that they are not having family gatherings. The Italian scenario would be a matter of time if people do not cooperate.
“I believe that people should be alarmed and be aware of the seriousness of the situation, by watching the television and seeing the hospitals full of patients, and noting that each citizen knows at least one person who either contracted the virus or died from it,” he added.
Agricultural and industrial export sectors, meanwhile, exerted pressure in an attempt to be exempted from full closure, while the threat of lockdown without exceptions caused panic among many people, who rushed to supermarkets, butchers and bakeries, leading to brief shortages of various goods.
A number of doctors expressed their fear that rushing to supermarkets in this way would further spread the disease.
The head of the Syndicate of Food Importers in Lebanon, Hani Bohsali, said: “Rushing to supermarkets is not right and would increase the spread of the virus. Foodstuffs are available in the importers’ stores with quantities enough for at least 2 months.”
He called on people to buy their needs for only one week at a time.