Lebanon announces full lockdown after surge in virus infections

The new lockdown in Lebanon comes amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Tuesday 05/01/2021
Two woman wearing face masks to help protect themselves from the coronavirus exercise on Beirut’s Mediterranean seaside corniche, Lebanon, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AFP)
Two woman wearing face masks to help protect themselves from the coronavirus exercise on Beirut’s Mediterranean seaside corniche, Lebanon, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AFP)

BEIRUT– Lebanon announced a full lockdown for three weeks, including a night curfew, to stem a rise in COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals in a country already facing financial meltdown.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan said the lockdown would start on Thursday and run until February 1, with further details on Tuesday on which sectors would be exempt.

The lockdown will include a curfew from 6pm to 5am.

“It has become clear that the pandemic challenge has reached a stage that is seriously threatening Lebanese lives as hospitals are not capable of providing beds,” Hasan told reporters after a meeting of the ministerial committee on COVID-19.

Hassan said legal action, not just fines, would be taken against violators.

“The pandemic challenge has become a danger to the lives of Lebanese as hospitals are no longer able to provide beds,” he told reporters.

Lebanon registered 2,870 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 189,278 cases and 1,486 deaths since February 21.

Post-holiday crisis

The holiday season in Lebanon has seen the number of new virus cases more than double. With a flailing economy, the government had relaxed preventive measures hoping to boost economic activity and cash in on visitors’ spending.

The softened restrictions sparked a debate over whether it is the government’s wavering policies or social laxness in implementing social distancing and other preventive measures that is behind the surge.

Nearly 80,000 Lebanese expats have returned home since the beginning of December to celebrate the holidays, including the Armenian Orthodox Christmas on Wednesday.

The festive season, with its increased number of social gatherings, has put pressure on Lebanon’s health care sector. First responders say they have been transporting nearly 100 patients a day to hospitals that are now reporting 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.

Testing for the virus has increased during the holidays but reports suggest many of those were carried out to allow celebrations that have driven up the number of new infections.

Lockdowns of towns and villages failed to contain new infections and fines for violators did not stop large New Year Eve 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.

People wait to get tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, in Beirut, Lebanon January 4, 2021. (REUTERS)
People wait to get tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, in Beirut, Lebanon January 4, 2021. (REUTERS)

Many fear the figures may surpass 5,000 infections a day and have expressed concerns about “the Italian scenario” — a reference to overloading the health sector with no ability to trace new cases.

Critical juncture

The new lockdown in Lebanon comes amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Lebanon is facing a devastating financial crisis that has crashed the currency, paralysed banks and frozen savers out of their deposits. Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars have grown scarce.

Intensive care units had previously reached critical capacity over the summer as the virus spread after a massive explosion at the docks wrecked swathes of Beirut, killed 200 people and destroyed several hospitals.

Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has been lax and there are now fears of a significant rise in cases.

“It is a big problem. In the next ten days it will be very difficult and we are expecting death rates to increase as infections rise,” Mahmoud Hassoun, head of the critical care unit at Rafik Hariri hospital, said.

“We are nearly full now and we haven’t even seen the effect of the holiday period yet.”