In Depth

Can Lebanon tackle second coronavirus wave amid fallout from Beirut blast?

Health minister calls for lockdown to avoid overwhelming crisis-hit hospitals

Health officials in Lebanon are calling for strict new lockdown measures to tackle a surge in coronavirus cases as the country struggles to recover from the recent chemical explosion in Beirut.

Lebanon’s Health Ministry registered a total of 439 new Covid infections on Sunday, and a further 456 new cases on Monday - a new daily record. 

With the Middle East nation’s doctors working around the clock to treat the thousands of people injured in the blast in the capital earlier this month, Health Minister Hamad Hassan has warned that hospitals “are at breaking point”, The Sun reports.

What are the numbers?

Lebanon had reported a total of 9,337 Covid cases as of Tuesday morning, and 105 related deaths, according to latest figures.

Meanwhile, the deadly ammonium nitrate fertiliser explosion at a warehouse in Beirut’s port area on 4 August killed at least 178 people, injured more than 6,000 and left around a 250,000 with homes unfit for habitation.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the blast also “put about half of 55 medical centres across Beirut out of service”,  Reuters reports. The wrecked centres included two hospitals “that had a key role in handling virus cases”, adds Australia’s ABC News.

How are the authorities responding?

Ahead of the spike in Covid cases, “medics had warned of the dangers of crowding at hospitals, at funerals and as people searched through the rubble for blast survivors”, says The Sun.

“There was also concerns the virus would spread through the thousands of protesters who targeted the government after the horror explosion,” the newspaper adds.

Health Minister Hassan yesterday urged Lebanon’s 6.8 million citizens to wear masks, warning that Covid has spread all across the country. “It is a matter of life and death,” he said.

“We declare today a state of general alert and we need a brave decision to close [the nation] for two weeks,” Hassan told Voice of Lebanon radio. Intensive care beds in both state and private hospitals were full, he said, adding: “We are on the brink, we don’t have the luxury to take our time.”

Exactly what the proposed lockdown would involve remains unclear, but Hassan told Reuters that Beirut’s airport, land border crossings with Syria, and seaports would remain open for now.

Lebanon imposed a two-week lockdown back in July, shutting down places of worship, cinemas, bars, nightclubs, sports events and popular markets. 

What other crises is Lebanon facing?

A UN-backed tribunal in the Netherlands has today begun reading the verdicts in the trial of four Hezbollah members allegedly involved in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 other people.

The verdicts “are expected to add to tension in Lebanon”, says The National. “Some Lebanese see the tribunal as an impartial way of uncovering the truth about Hariri’s slaying, while Hezbollah, which denies involvement, calls it an Israeli plot to tarnish the group,” the news site reports.

The authorities fear that regardless of the outcome at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, on the outskirts of The Hague, the culmination of the case is likely to trigger widespread protests, similar to those that occurred in the aftermath of Hariri’s death.

Even if victims are able to find some closure, “Lebanese public opinion at large is not convinced”, Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at Lebanon’s Saint Joseph University, told Al Jazeera.

“Most people you speak to, even die-hard supporters of Rafik Hariri, do not believe that this is really justice because it’s been 15 years, because there were so many shifting alliances in the past 15 years, because Hariri’s son, Saad, himself in 2009 reconciled with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The Hariri trial was significant in seeking to hold people accountable for the killings, Bitar added. But “justice delayed is justice denied”.

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