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Lebanon crisis

NGO efforts plug gaps in Lebanon’s struggling health sector

Published: Updated:

With over a quarter of a million recorded cases, Lebanon is ravaged by COVID-19, stretching the country’s already limited resources.

With few hospital beds available, and medical supplies low, patients are unable to find vacancies, and forced to stay at home. However, without vital oxygen tanks, the vulnerable Lebanese suffering from COVID-19 risk slowly suffocating to death in their own houses.

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“We realized that we had to take action,” Baytna Baytak President, Maroun Karam told Al Arabiya English. “We took the initiative and started getting oxygen concentrators, one-by-one. Now, we’ve reached 500 machines, which we have given to patients.”

Baytna Baytak is a registered NGO that began as a civil initiative in 2020 to help secure housing for healthcare professionals working on the frontline of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Following August’s port blast, the organization expanded its mission to tackle other emerging needs. Through its Lebanon Needs Oxygen initiative, it aims to address critical shortages of key medical equipment, such as oxygen concentrators and oximeters.

While not intended to replace emergency care for the critically ill, Baytna Baytak is doing its best to make sure to accommodate those in need of medical care. However, in a country where hoarding has become second nature for many, measures have been taken to ensure that all applicants are genuine.

“We have a very strict protocol where the patient has to sign their ID and the prescription from their doctor,” explained Melissa Fathallah, who oversees the Lebanon Needs Oxygen’s volunteer team of doctors and nurses. “Once the order is confirmed through our medical board, we take the machine to the patient, and we teach them how to use the machine.”

“Once a patient’s time is up, we give them a call back,” she continued. “We sanitize the machine, make it good as new and then send it along to the next patient.”

Without access to medical insurance, a hospital visit can cost as much as 20 million Lebanese pounds ($49,000). Unable to access their savings due to freezes implemented by the financial sector and with unemployment on the rise, many Lebanese simply cannot afford the cost of treatment.

Lebanese hospitals are struggling. With hyperinflation triggered by the continuing financial crisis, importing goods into the country has become prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true for medical equipment, undermining the efforts of an already overburdened healthcare system.

“We have direct contact with the medical frontliners, because we’re housing over 100 of them, so we get our information firsthand,” said Fathallah. “There was a huge demand for this, especially since the hospitals were completely overwhelmed and didn’t have any more space. The next best option was to send people home with prescriptions and hope that they’re able to take care of themselves.”

Despite being supported by foreign sponsors, which provide a crucial source of fresh US dollars, NGOs such as Baytna Baytak face significant logistical and administrative challenges too.

“The process was not clear from the Ministry of Public Health,” said Karam. “There is no communication between the Ministry of Public Health and the army at the airport. It took us two or three days just to bring [the machines] out.”

Speaking for the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Mohamad Haidar maintained that such measures were necessary to protect the Lebanese public from being exploited by potential profiteers.

“If it’s not clearly for donation, to be given to people for free, we cannot authorize these machines to enter our country, because we are afraid that they will be sold to those in need instead,” said Haidar.

“There have been some donations where they were stopped at the airport while clarification was obtained. When [the NGOs] bring their papers to the Ministry, we try to get them signed off immediately to allow them to take [their equipment] as soon as possible,” he added.

The Ministry of Public Health has faced widespread criticism for its handling of the pandemic, particularly when restrictions were eased in December for the holidays, resulting in a spike of new cases, and contributing to Lebanon’s strictest lockdown period yet, including a 24-hour curfew which remains in effect until March 8.

“It was chaos,” said Karam. “They opened the country on New Year’s Eve, as well as Christmas. Clubbing was allowed as well. They didn’t see what would happen in January and February, so they didn’t manage to plan well. Now, we’re going into the next wave. Ramadan is coming. Easter is coming as well. Everybody is afraid.”

“The government and the hospitals are not providing [medical staff] with seclusion to stay away from their families,” said Fathallah. “When you’re working with COVID-19 everyday, you really cannot just walk into your home in your scrubs. There are still people who think they can’t get it, who think that it’s a joke. We’re killing ourselves to help other people, and meanwhile they don’t even want to help themselves.”

As the phased easing of Lebanon’s current lockdown continues, there have been concerns raised about more sharp increase in cases, and deaths, if the general population fails to adhere to recommendations like social distancing and avoiding mass gatherings.

“Honestly, I’m not optimistic,” admitted Karam. “We want the restrictions to be lifted but we need the vaccine. If there is no vaccine, then we cannot lift the restrictions. Things cannot go back to normal.”

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