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Lebanon braces for second coronavirus wave as protests planned after Beirut explosion

Published: Updated:

Lebanon is likely to see a spike in COVID-19 cases following the deadly explosion in Beirut earlier this week, according to a doctor leading the fight against the virus.

On Tuesday evening, a devastating blast ripped through the Lebanese capital, killing at least 154 people, wounding 5,000 and destroying tens of thousands of homes. At least 60 people are still missing.

In the following hours, people rushed to hospitals, crowded round the injured and huddled together in the hope of finding some comfort amid an unprecedented catastrophe.

“Unfortunately, this atmosphere is conducive to the transmission of the virus,” Firass Abiad, the head of Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Hospital, told Al Arabiya English.

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In the next two weeks or so, Lebanon is likely to see a rise in people testing positive for the virus, he said.

Before the explosion blew the capital apart, Lebanon was already grappling with a second wave of coronavirus, with weekly numbers equivalent to what were previously monthly totals in the early stage of the pandemic.

On Friday, three days after the deadly blast, Lebanon recorded 279 new coronavirus cases – the highest daily increase since the first case was confirmed in February.

“We were clearly and consistently seeing rising numbers – it wasn’t a fluke,” Abiad said.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, many public hospitals were nearing capacity, even before they were inundated with patients needing urgent, life-saving care following the explosion.

Intensive care units suddenly had to divert their resources to treat casualties from the explosion. Many hospitals were themselves damaged by the immense force of the blast.

Saint George University Hospital, a key center for Lebanon’s coronavirus response, district was one of the worst hit, and staff were forced to evacuate patients, including those already being treated for COVID-19, to other hospitals. Four nurses and at least 12 patients were killed.

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The country’s economic crisis had crippled the healthcare sector. Hospitals were owed billions of dollars by a government that is itself in debt, and a lack of dollars had jeopardized imports of vital medicine and medical equipment.

Tuesday’s explosion destroyed Lebanon’s main source of foreign imports, the Beirut port, further limiting the country’s ability to bring in essential supplies.

Many countries quickly responded to the disaster by sending medical supplies to help Lebanon cope with the aftermath and medical personnel to establish longer-term healthcare needs. Field hospitals have already been set up in the capital to ease pressure on the strained healthcare sector, which Abiad hopes will contribute to Lebanon’s fight against COVID-19.

“We don’t expect to see more casualties from the explosion, so we need to direct aid to where it is needed most.”

Another factor in a potential increase in coronavirus cases is the authorities’ reduced ability to implement measures to contain the spread of the virus, Health Minister Hamad Hasan said on Friday.

The government had already been forced to weigh up containment measures with the impact on an already decimated economy. Now, immediate efforts are focused on dealing with the devastation of the explosion. Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi announced shortly after the explosion that a five-day lockdown set to begin Thursday, was canceled.

Anger in Lebanon is palpable after it was revealed that Tuesday’s blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was dangerously stored in a port warehouse since 2014, and that the country’s leaders and senior officials knew it was there.

With trust in the authorities completely eroded, Abiad doubts any new measures will be adhered to.

“People are in a rebellious mood,” he said.

Protests planned

A large protest is set to be held Saturday afternoon to seek “revenge” against those who are believed to be responsible for the explosion or complicit in a political system in which corruption and negligence are deeply entrenched.

While protesters are calling for huge crowds to join demonstrations in downtown Beirut, many are using social media to remind people to wear their masks and keep their distance.

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Evidence on spikes of COVID-19 following protests is not definitive, Abiad said, drawing on studies conducted after the Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

The scale of a potential coronavirus spike after the explosion and subsequent protests remains to be seen. For the time being, the trauma, heartbreak and anger felt by the Lebanese people as a result of this avoidable tragedy takes precedence.

“Right now,” Abiad said, “social cohesion is more important than social distancing.”