Lebanon hospitals facing Coronavirus amid medical shortages

The Lebanese Ministry of Health called on all hospitals across the country to prepare for the outbreak, which could grow.
Friday 20/03/2020
A Lebanese Red Cross ambulance leaves the emergency building of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where most Lebanese coronavirus cases are treated, in Beirut, March 11. (AP)
Virus Outbreak Lebanon. A Lebanese Red Cross ambulance leaves the emergency building of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where most Lebanese coronavirus cases are treated, in Beirut, March 11. (AP)

BEIRUT--Lebanon’s crippling financial crisis and banks’ stiff capital control left hospitals short of medical equipment and consumables undermining their ability to manage the coronavirus outbreak, medical supply importers said.

A severe dollar shortage that has hit imports in Lebanon since October, when anti-government protests erupted, exposed hospitals to shortages of basic materials from dialysis equipment to syringes. Demands for medical supplies have significantly increased with the appearance of COVID-19, which claimed at least four lives and infected more than 130 people in the country.

Salma Assi, president of the Syndicate of Importers of Medical Devices and Equipment, said even basic supplies have all but dried up as a backlog of foreign exchange requests at dollar-scarce commercial banks has gone unmet.

“Hospitals were already low in stock but things got worse with the outbreak of the virus,” Assi said. “Definitely there is a severe shortage of consumables in high demand such as masks and gloves because we have not been able to import properly for the past 7 months.”

“Importers have been able to bring in just $10 million of the $140 million in goods they have sought since October, less than 10% of what we need, and nearly all transactions have been frozen since February,” Assi said.

She said private and public hospitals across Lebanon are equipped with 850 respirators, 10% of which were out of order and needed spare parts. “Of the remaining 780 ventilators, 400 are already being used and 250-300 that are available are definitely not sufficient if the number of coronavirus cases surges as feared,” she said.

Assi, whose syndicate represents 80% of medical suppliers, complained about the government’s laxity in facilitating the suppliers’ work.

“Although the government has said it will facilitate medical imports linked to the virus, we are still not able to transfer money to providers abroad because until today there is no mechanism to facilitate transfers for imports,” she said, adding “no government official got in contact with us to facilitate our work. We are not even represented in the crisis committee dealing with the virus outbreak.”

People testing positive for COVID-19 have been quarantined and treated at the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, the only public health-care facility in the country capable of treating coronavirus patients.

The hospital has seven intensive care and four isolation units, with capacity to accommodate approximately 128 mild and 11 severe cases. With rapid rates of infection and 14-day periods of self-isolation necessary to determine if they are carriers of the virus or whether symptoms develop, the capacity to treat only 139 people nationwide is not enough.

The Lebanese Ministry of Health called on all hospitals across the country to prepare for the outbreak, which could grow.

“I don’t think any country is 100% prepared to this big-scale pandemic but what is reassuring is that Lebanon’s case monitoring and quarantine steps meet international norms,” Lebanon World Health Organisation (WHO) representative Iman Shankiti said. “It is applying strict measures and still able to trace all positive cases and the people they were in contact with in order to check them.”

“Also, we have several cases that are cured and the fact that none of the hospital’s staff was infected shows that they are applying the requested precautionary measures.”

Noting that the health-care sector in Lebanon has been deeply affected by the financial crisis, Shankiti said the WHO has provided technical support and in-kind assistance to medical teams stationed at the airport and to hospital laboratories.

“We are trying to flatten the curve and keep it at a level whereby the number of patients does not exceed the hospital’s capacities. That would give us additional time to prepare other hospitals for a potential increase in the number of cases in the next phase,” she said.

In Lebanon, where protests have taken aim at a political elite seen as mired in corruption, distrust of the government runs deep and many Lebanese have been sceptical of its ability to rein in a serious outbreak.

“Whether it’s coronavirus or any disease or any problem, the government isn’t prepared to deal with anything,” 41-year-old real-estate broker Samir al-Mohtar told Reuters.

The Lebanese government owes private and public hospitals millions of dollars including funds owed by the National Social Security Fund and military health funds.

Human Rights Watch warned that the government’s failure to reimburse hospitals “seriously endangers the health of the population.”

Sleiman Haroun, the head of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese Finance Ministry has not paid private hospitals an estimated $1.3 billion in dues since 2011, compromising their ability to buy vital medicine and supplies and to pay staff salaries.