In the midst of an almost year-long global pandemic, Lebanon has been forced to endure ongoing civil unrest, political deadlock, a catastrophic financial crisis and the horrifying events of the August 4 Beirut port blast, compounding an already extreme situation.
As the country continues to ease restrictions following almost a month of strict lockdown, the embattled Ministry of Public Health is taking the first tentative steps towards delivering much needed COVID-19 vaccines, as well as hope, to the stricken nation.
“We have reserved over six million doses, so we can vaccinate around three million people, about 50 percent of the population,” Dr Mohamad Haidar, Director of Nuclear Medicine at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, and consultant to the Ministry of Public Health, told Al Arabiya English. “The private market now also has the authorization from the Ministry to bring in other kinds of vaccines, such as the Russian [Sputnik V] vaccine.”
Skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 cases in January led the government to implement the harshest restrictions yet seen in the country, with most citizens subject to a 24-hour curfew.
“We had around 90 deaths per day,” explained Haidar. “Now, we are down to around 50 per day. With the number of new cases, we are around 2500 per day, which is still very high right now because the percentage of positive PCR tests is almost 20 percent."
“If we can vaccinate our population fast, we think we could be back to normal by the end of summer,” he continued. “But, in order to do that, we need to vaccinate over 70 to 80 percent of our population first.”
The fight to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Lebanon has not been easy. With the Lebanese pound severely depreciated and reserves of fresh US dollars in short supply, the relief effort is largely dependent on foreign aid. The World Bank has dedicated $34 million to Lebanon’s vaccination program.
Many Lebanese citizens have been left unable to access their bank accounts, due to freezes implemented by the financial sector to prevent the banks from collapsing. According to estimates by the UN, over 55 percent of the country’s population is now below the poverty line, almost double from the previous year, driving some to flout public health recommendations simply in order to provide for their families.
“In the early weeks of lockdown, almost 90 percent of Lebanese people respected the recommendations,” said Haidar. “After that, the recommendations were respected between 70 and 80 percent, depending on the area of the country, but our police, and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces try to follow up and makes sure that [these measures] are respected.”
The lack of fresh dollars also affects Lebanon’s ability to bring in materials, particularly drugs and medical equipment from abroad, as the companies selling these goods will only deal in US dollars, driving up the cost significantly against the weakened Lebanese pound. Shortages of vital medicines for chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol have also led to panic buying.
“It has been a very difficult situation in Lebanon, especially in November and December last year, because the prices were increased, multiplied by as much as three times the actual value,” explained Haidar.
Hospital spaces have also been at a premium due to the high volume of cases. Many hospitals in Beirut were also severely damaged by the August 4 blast, further reducing the number of available spaces. Despite these setbacks, things are beginning to improve.
“The total number of COVID-19 patients is down,” said Haidar. “This is the first time since January 1 that we have ICU beds free.
Some hospitals in the country have occupancy rates of less than 90 percent. Competition for the emergency rooms is lessened and we no longer have a lot of people on emergency wards for COVID-19 symptoms.”
Many have already signed up to receive their vaccinations through the government’s online Impact registry system. However, concerns remain about the possibility of another wave of new infections as restrictions continue to ease.
“We will have Easter in two months, and then we will have Ramadan and after that we will have Eid al-Fitr, so we will have a very big wave of COVID-19 related to the social conduct,” explained Haidar. “We’re starting to decrease the number of new cases and deaths, but we encourage people to respect the recommendations and avoid any social gatherings.”