Lebanon is gearing up for a new nationwide lockdown, as officials vowed Monday to take stricter measures against the coronavirus following the holiday season, which saw a large increase in infections and caused jitters in the country's already-battered health sector.
First responders say they have been transporting nearly 100 patients a day while hospitals report near-full occupancy in beds and ICUs.
Nurses say they are overwhelmed, and private hospitals have been roped into the national response despite complaints that the cash-strapped government owes them large sums of outstanding debt.
“We are facing a very critical phase and we need exceptional and firm measures as well as strict implementation,” caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said at the start of a government meeting to discuss how to deal with the spreading virus.
A meeting of the highest security committee is to follow later in the day before new measures are announced. Armenian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in Lebanon this week.
Lebanon, a country of nearly 6 million, including 1 million refugees, has registered around 3,000 infections cases every day for the past week — nearly doubling the number from previous weeks. Since February, nearly 190,000 infections have been recorded and almost 1,500 deaths.
The numbers began increasing this summer, following a massive explosion in Beirut’s port that shook the city and its heath sector, killing over 200 people and injuring 6,000. The infections following the August explosion increased by over 300 percent from the month before and have been climbing since.
Despite a two-week lockdown in November, the numbers kept increasing — only worsening with the holiday seasons and the return of nearly 80,000 expats to celebrate at home.
The holidays have also seen increased testing but reports suggested many of those were carried out to allow celebrations, only driving up infections. Lockdowns of towns and villages failed to contain new infections and fines for violators did not stop large New Year Eve’s gatherings. At one, a hotel hosted a famous Lebanese singer in an indoor party that included hundreds of people, raising criticism of lax penalty implementation.
Many feared the figures may surpass 5,000 infections a day and have expressed fear of “the Italian scenario” — a reference to overloading the health sector with no ability to trace new cases.
Lebanon is already struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis that has caused it to default on debt, and has sent its local currency plunging and losing 80 percent of its value to the dollar. That has severely curbed imports in the import-dependent countries, including of medicine and medical supplies. It has also driven inflation and unemployment up.
Ahead of the holidays, Lebanese authorities relaxed restrictions, hoping to give the flailing economy a boost, particularly with thousands of expats in town. This sparked a debate over whether it is the government’s wavering policies or social laxness in implementing social distancing and others measures that is behind the surge.