Here In Beirut, Coronavirus Is Stopping Us Recovering From Tragedy

Doctors and nurses were already working to the bone before the explosion. Now the hospitals that even survived are in even more chaos.

I had just arrived home from a long day when my family and I felt the tremor.

At first we thought it was a bomb. I have two daughters and a son, and having been born long after my country’s brutal civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, they had never heard anything like this before. Terrified, I will never forget them asking “Mum, is Lebanon under attack? Are we safe? Should we leave?”

This time, it wasn’t anything to do with war. Instead it was a tragic explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, which killed at least 180 people, injured 6,000 more and wiped away the homes of an estimated 300,000 citizens.

The scale of the blast was immense: the port, which brings in 80% of Lebanon’s food supplies, was destroyed. Surrounding buildings, many of them people’s homes and offices, were ripped to shreds. The noise reportedly travelled as far as Cyprus, 250km away.

The day after the explosion, I joined my colleagues in assessing what needed to be done to help. I could barely describe the devastation: people were crying in desperation, searching among the rubble where their homes once stood, trying to recover whatever they could, taking photos of the damage on their phones. The smell of blood was overwhelming.

“Not only can most people not afford to see a doctor, they cannot even afford the transport to get there.”

As health officer at Islamic Relief Lebanon, my day-to-day work involves liaising with hospitals and public health centres to assess how we can support with medical supplies; and organising the payment of bills and consultations for people who cannot afford it.

The country’s economic crisis – nearly half of the population are living below the poverty line – has made access to healthcare out of reach for so many people for a long time now. Not only can most people not afford to see a doctor, they cannot even afford the transport to get there.

Most hospitals cannot afford to import drugs or medical supplies, which did not bode well for the start of the coronavirus outbreak – lots of people have suffered because they couldn’t get the treatment they needed. Islamic Relief and other charities are helping out where we can, but we can’t control the economy.

Doctors and nurses were already working to the bone, and after the explosion, hospitals – the ones that hadn’t themselves been damaged – were in even more chaos. Their most urgent need is PPE. At the beginning of the month, Lebanon went into its second lockdown due to a rise in Covid-19 cases, and doctors I’ve spoken to said they had to treat all patients who came in with injuries from the explosion as though they had the virus. They couldn’t afford to take chances.

It was inevitable, with so many coming together to respond, support one another and grieve, and the subsequent protests of the past few weeks, that coronavirus cases would go up again. The lockdown enforced at the start of August was called off – and now we are entering another phase to try and flatten the curve. Last Friday, Lebanon went back into lockdown. Between 6pm and 6am, nobody will be allowed to go outside.

“The economic impact of lockdown means more people will lose their jobs and become reliant on emergency food packs to survive.”

Luckily my colleagues and I at Islamic Relief are still able to do our bit: the government expects NGOs that are responding to the explosion to continue our work. But we need to make sure we are being particularly careful by wearing PPE, including face masks, visors and gloves, physically distancing by at least 1.5 metres and disinfecting all the food and hygiene packs we are distributing. And of course, the economic impact of lockdown means more people will lose their jobs and become reliant on emergency food packs to survive.

There’s another obvious reason for a rise in cases. In one hospital, the government is now offering free coronavirus tests for those with symptoms – but on a daily basis there are as many as 500 people crowded in reception areas, waiting for tests. There’s no social distancing and masks are scarce. But this is the only place they can go, as all the other hospitals are private, charging at least 250,000 Lebanese pounds – currently about $160 – for a test.

This year has brought unimaginable suffering to Lebanon: economic and political turmoil, a food crisis that has seen even middle class people unable to feed their families, a global pandemic and now this disastrous explosion that has physically ripped apart a city that was already tearing.

All we can do is keep pulling together to help one another. For now, the spirit of life persists.

Sara Bakri is health project supervisor at Islamic Relief Lebanon

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