BEIRUT (AP) – It was a choice between containing a spiral virus outbreak and reviving a dying economy in a country that has been in stable financial and economic degradation over the past year. The Lebanese authorities chose the latter.
Now virus patients are struggling to breathe outside hospitals – hoping a bed or even a chair will open. Ordinary people share contact lists of oxygen suppliers on social media when critical gas becomes scarce and the sound of ambulances ferrying the sick echoes through Beirut. About 500 of Lebanon’s 14,000 doctors have left the crisis-stricken country in recent months, according to the doctor̵
On Thursday, Lebanese authorities swung the other way: They began enforcing an 11-day nationwide shutdown and curfew around the clock in hopes of blunting the spread of coronavirus infections that spread out of control after the holiday season.
A curfew is the most stringent measure taken by Lebanon since the start of the pandemic.
Previous shutdowns had looser rules and were poorly enforced. Now residents can not leave their homes except for a defined set of reasons, including going to the bakery, pharmacy, doctor’s office, hospital or airport – and for the first time, they must apply for permission before doing these things. Even supermarkets can only open for delivery.
While Lebanon somehow still managed to keep cases at an average of less than 100 per. Day until August, it now leads the Arab world in number of cases per. Million people. Today, the number of daily COVID-19 deaths is more than 13 times what it was in July. On January 9, over 5,400 infections were reported, a record for the small country.
On Thursday, Lebanon recorded a new daily record of 41 deaths, bringing the total number of recorded cases to nearly 237,200 and 1,781 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
As its neighbors begin vaccinating their populations – including Israel, whose campaign promises to be among the world’s fastest – Lebanon has not yet secured a first batch of shots. Once Lebanon’s leader in the health sector among Middle Eastern countries, it has been hampered in its attempts to obtain vaccines by repeated bureaucratic delays, in part due to the fact that it has a caretaker government.
Parliament is expected to meet on Friday to vote on a draft law allowing the import of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and the first deliveries are expected to arrive next month.
“This is the result of conscious decisions made by irresponsible and immoral politicians,” said Sami Hanna, a 42-year-old businessman waiting for his turn to enter a pharmacy earlier this week, looking for painkillers, antidepressants and blood pressure medication to his elderly parents.
“This is how we spend our days now begging,” he said, adding that his next mission was to look for bread that was sold out due to panic buying before the curfew went into effect. “It’s a little too late. ”
The rise in coronavirus cases began in late August, a few weeks after the massive explosion in the port of Beirut that destroyed parts of the capital, including several hospitals with virus patients.
The blast was caused by a fire that detonated nearly three tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate that had been sitting in a port warehouse for years – the kind of mismanagement typical of a corrupt political class that does not provide even basic services to its people.
The virus rose in the chaos with flooded hospitals, funerals and protests that followed.
Politicians who further complicated the efforts to curb the virus have not been able to agree on a new government since the old one stepped back in the wake of the port explosion, effectively ensuring the country’s continued rollout.
But in December, when most governments around the world tightened lockdowns, Lebanon went the other way, allowing restaurants and nightclubs to reopen with almost no restrictions in place. An estimated 80,000 expats flocked to the country to celebrate Christmas and New Year with loved ones – many of them Lebanese who skipped visits in the summer due to the devastation caused by the explosion.
“The holiday season should have been the time of closure. The season with crowds, shopping and parties, ”said Hanna Azar, owner of a money transfer and phone shop. “They opened it to let dollars into the country, and now they want to close. Especially in this economic crisis, people do not have money to eat. ”
Many hospitals have now reached maximum capacity for coronavirus patients. Some have run out of beds, oxygen tanks and fans. Others have stopped optional surgeries.
Last week, Lebanon imposed a 25-day nationwide shutdown and a curfew to curb the spread of the virus, but many sectors were excluded and enforcement was sluggish as before. Many companies, including hair salons, welcomed customers behind closed storefronts. In some areas of northern and southern Lebanon, business was as usual.
With hospitals on the verge of collapse, the government then ordered an 11-day nationwide curfew from Thursday that triggered three days of chaos as crowds of shoppers emptied shelves in supermarkets and bakeries.
On Thursday, police manned checkpoints around the country and checked motorists ’permission to be on the road.
Halim Shebaya, a political analyst, said the government still has no clear strategy and warned that it would be difficult to bring the numbers down so late in the game.
“The main issue now is the absence of trust in the government and the authorities and the management of a pandemic necessitates the presence of public confidence in the measures of the authorities,” he said.
Still, Rabih Torbay, head of Project HOPE, an international global health and humanitarian organization, said time is of the essence and urged the authorities to take every step that can help curb infections.
“Every day that passes by the country slides further down the abyss,” he said.
Associated Press journalists Fadi Tawil and Bilal Hussein contributed reporting.