The prime minister-designate in Lebanon has accelerated the investigation into the explosion at Beirut Port on 4th August (BBC 2020). The explosion presents Lebanon with another crisis, preceded by an economic recession, the Syrian civil war, and the pandemic (Devi, 2020). Furthermore, Lebanon was just coming out of a five-day government lockdown and planning to go into a second lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. This report analyses the repercussions of this man-made hazard during a pandemic and recommends international public health measures to curb impacts in similar situations.
This crisis, together with the pandemic, increases the urgency of medical aid on an already strained health sector as well as need for economic aid and humanitarian assistance.
Geographically, Lebanon covers the western region of southern Syria, with a direct access to Damascus and Homs (Harris, 1985). The Syrian civil war resulted in Lebanon hosting over 1.5 million refugees currently (UNHCR, 2020) and it was already facing a humanitarian crisis. This crisis, together with the pandemic, increases the urgency of medical aid on an already strained health sector as well as need for economic aid and humanitarian assistance. In early August, there were 5,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Beirut, with the health system ‘beyond its capacity’ (Houssari, 2020). The blast left over 135 people dead and thousands injured (OCHA, 2020).
Hospitals struggling with limited resources for COVID-19 patients (HRW, 2020) have to accommodate victims of the blast while containing the virus. At a time of limited capacity for COVID-19 treatment, the blast has exacerbated the need for medical attention (CDP, 2020). The Ministry of Public Health is attempting to expand capacity (Bardi, Bollyky, 2020), but amidst the political turmoil, the state is in no position to hold hospitals responsible for allocating special departments for COVID-19 patients (Houssari, 2020).
Beirut Port had large reserves of medical equipment necessary to tackle COVID-19 in the city.
This is even more problematic because the number of COVID-19 cases has doubled since the explosion. Beirut Port had large reserves of medical equipment necessary to tackle COVID-19 in the city. However, 10 containers of PPE suits and the national quarantine warehouse, where cold chains, medications and vaccines were stored, have been damaged (CDP, 2020). Lebanon imports food, clothing and most consumer goods which will now find their way to Beirut from the smaller Tripoli Port, 70 km away and half the size of the destroyed Beirut port (OCHA, 2020; Saul, 2020). Moreover, patients with immuno-compromising diseases such as cancer do not have access to medication and treatment. Patients requiring palliative or end-of-life care are at risk of losing access to treatment, chemotherapy for children is also unlikely (Gourd, 2020).
In addition, the economy began to collapse in October 2019, threatening food security, plunging more than 50% of the population into poverty, and causing the value of the Lebanese pound to fall by 80% (HRW, 2020). Poverty levels in the country were estimated to rise to 45% or more and food poverty would have doubled by 2020 regardless of the pandemic (FAO, 2020). Although the economic crisis affected the tradable sector significantly, the pandemic has largely compromised non-tradable sectors such as catering, tourism, and transport.
The participating world leaders stressed that the aid should be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency
Furthermore, following the 15-year-long civil war and ensuing political instability, international donors are uncertain about where aid would be absorbed, leaving Lebanon ill-equipped in the current situation (CIA, 2020). However, after assessing the situation on the ground, in a virtual summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and the UN on 9 August, $298 million was pledged in aid to Lebanon. The participating world leaders stressed that the aid should be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency” (Slotkin, 2020).
With the explosion destroying essential goods at the Port and infrastructure, the social and economic impact is dire. Lebanon now faces several policy-related dilemmas. In the light of these events, it is important to consider the following recommendations with regard to public health:
- The creation of a public health impact assessment framework for technological disasters during pandemics or/and epidemics
- Systems to accelerate and increment aid to disaster-struck places such as rapid emergency conferences to facilitate national and international action
- Medication for chronic medical needs such as cancer must be accounted for in emergency relief kits
- Ultimately economic and social recovery post-pandemic and post-disaster must be based on collective action and a rehabilitation of society’s trust (Abi-Rached, Dlwan, 2020).
By Samia Khan
A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team
4 September 2020