Sharp rise in virus cases in Lebanon after deadly port blast

By BASSEM MROUE for the Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon is facing a surge in coronavirus cases after a devastating blast at the Beirut port earlier this month killed scores and wounded thousands, prompting medical officials to urge Monday for a two-week lockdown to try to contain the pandemic.

Relatives of three of ten firefighters who were killed during the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, mourn during their funeral at the firefighter headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Virus numbers were expected to rise following the Aug. 4, explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. Around 180 people were killed, more than 6,000 wounded and a quarter of a million left with homes unfit to live in. The blast overwhelmed the city’s hospitals and also badly damaged two that had a key role in handling virus cases.

Ahead of the surge, medical officials had warned of the dangers of crowding at hospitals in the aftermath of the explosion, at funerals or as people searched through the rubble. Protests and demonstrations also broke out after the blast as Lebanese vented their anger at the ruling class and decades-long mismanagement.

On Sunday, Lebanon registered 439 new virus cases and six fatalities. The new infections bring to 8,881 the total number of cases in the small country of just over 5 million, where COVID-19 has killed some 103 people.

Separately, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said four Palestinians died of the virus over the weekend — doubling to eight the number of dead so far in Palestinian camps.

Initially, strict measures had kept the numbers of cases under control in Lebanon but they surged after a lockdown and nighttime curfew were lifted and the country’s only international airport reopened in early July.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan warned the true number could be far higher. Following a meeting Monday with medical officials who demanded another two-week lockdown, he urged everyone wear a mask, saying the virus has now spread in every city and almost every village in Lebanon.

“It is a matter of life and death,” Hassan said, adding that soon private and public hospitals might not be able to take more patients.

Lebanon’s health sector has been challenged by the pandemic that hit amid an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. The explosion in Beirut’s port only increased the pressure on the Lebanese capital’s hospitals, knocking out at least three of them.

Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital which is leading the fight against coronavirus, described the situation as “extremely worrisome,” warning that without a lockdown, the numbers will continue to rise “overwhelming the hospital capacity.”

Hassan urged every expatriate or foreigner returning to Lebanon not to leave their hotels until they are tested and cleared. People traveling to Lebanon will be required to be tested both before and upon arrival.

He also called for field hospitals and said some public hospitals will exclusively handle virus patients.

Petra Khoury, medical adviser to outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab tweeted that COVID-19 positive rate has increased from 2.1% to 5.6% in just four weeks.

“The virus doesn’t differentiate between us. A rate 5% is real threat to all our nation,” she warned.

Meanwhile, Iran, which has the region’s largest and deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus, reported 165 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the overall death toll to 19,804.

Health ministry’s spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said Iran has so far confirmed 345,450 cases of the virus.