Red Cross volunteers on the frontline of COVID-19 battle in Lebanon

“Had the LRC not been ready to handle the pandemic, many more people would have been harmed and infected," said LRC Secretary-General Georges Kettaneh.
Wednesday 15/04/2020
An ambulance of the Lebanese Red Cross leaves the emergency building of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where most of the Lebanese coronavirus cases are treated, in Beirut, Lebanon,  March 11. (AP)
An ambulance of the Lebanese Red Cross leaves the emergency building of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where most of the Lebanese coronavirus cases are treated, in Beirut, Lebanon,  March 11. (AP)

BEIRUT - While most Lebanese are confined at home and isolating themselves from danger, volunteers of the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) are risking their health and life to assist COVID-19 patients.

LRC ambulances with their wailing sirens are among the few vehicles allowed to circulate since Lebanon imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of the killer virus on March 15.

Anticipating the propagation of the virus, the organisation, which operates as an auxiliary to the Lebanese Army, was prepared to handle coronavirus cases before the first suspected patient was identified in February, said LRC Secretary-General Georges Kettaneh.

“The Lebanese Red Cross was the sole organisation that was ready with a contingency plan and scenario to face the COVID-19 crisis. We had already put in place a response strategy as early as January,” Kettaneh said.

“Had the LRC not been ready to handle the pandemic, many more people would have been harmed and infected.

“To date we have some 1,000 volunteers specially trained to deal with COVID-19 patients.  They are handling transportation of patients across Lebanon,” Kettaneh said.

Red Cross volunteers have been transferring infected people to designated hospitals, conducting awareness sessions throughout the country to reduce the risks of the virus's spread and organising delivery of food supplies and hygiene material in remote and isolated areas.

Teams of Red Cross paramedics have also been stationed at land crossings and at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport to handle arriving passengers since Lebanon started repatriating its nationals stranded abroad on April 5.

The Red Cross's work since the outbreak began in the country has taken a heavy toll on their funds, which come mainly from donations.

Every coronavirus mission costs a total of $850, which includes expenses of specialised kits, personal protection equipment (PPE) and transportation. With 10 to 20 responses every day, the LRC is spending a lot of money, especially on the one-time-use uniforms.

After each mission involving COVID-19 patients or suspected cases, ambulances are sanitised, a process that takes between 6 to 8 hours.

“Our prime concern is to ensure the protection of our volunteers. They are equipped with the highest-quality PPE that are used only once. They wear these uniforms only when the person has symptoms or the virus,” Kettaneh said.

He said the organisation recently made an appeal for funds and procured $5.5 million allocated exclusively for the teams handling coronavirus operations over the next three months. “In the meantime, we are preparing another budget appeal for another three months.”

In addition to responding to COVID-19 cases, the organisation is continuing its regular emergency missions.

“We got organised to handle all sorts of cases,” Kettaneh said. “For instance, if we have seven ambulances in a station, two are allocated exclusively to transport coronavirus cases and the rest for handling regular transportation of non-COVID-19 patients or emergency cases.”

Founded in 1945 as an auxiliary team to the medical service of the Lebanese Army, the LRC is the main provider of ambulance services in Lebanon. Its 3,000 emergency medical technicians and fleet of more than 300 ambulances respond to more than 140,000 emergencies and free patient transports per year.

Nada Sleiman, an artisan, spoke highly of the Red Cross's response to the virus. “The Red Cross is about the only organisation that I trust to deal with the coronavirus cases," Sleiman said. "It is a pillar and mainstay in this terrible crisis. But I hope I will not need their services."

She said the number of affected people continues to increase and the Red Cross volunteers are rushing to help all over the country, “regardless of who or where you are.”

“The inescapable reality today is that we are all in this together, and we should be acting as such, by supporting those doing the heavy part to save us all,” Sleiman said.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, now extended until April 26, the Lebanese have shown their support for and solidarity with health workers and Red Cross volunteers fighting on the frontlines against the virus through rounds of applause and cheering from balconies and windows.