Covid-19. The situation in Lebanon

9 April 2020, 18:44

Today’s update on Covid-19 comes from Lebanon. We have been working in this country since 1997 to support Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Here, economic and healthcare crises have left the country on the brink of collapse. And, once again, the Palestinian population is being completely overlooked by the government. Un Ponte Per’s Beirut Office Chief David Ruggini explains.

Various cases of infection have been declared in Lebanon since 20th February and the government has gradually introduced containment measures – based on evidence that suggested most cases were imported from Iran – followed later by local restrictions to prevent further spread.
What gave us most cause for concern was the Education Ministry’s decision to shut down all educational facilities on 28th February.

Most of our projects here focus on the education sector, with a focus on protecting the right to education of Palestinian and Syrian-Palestinian child refugees: the new decree forced us to suspend all our projects.

One by one, our local partners also had to suspend their work and temporarily close their Centres. One such partner, Beit Atfal Assumoud, which works with Palestinian boys and girls in refugee camps, suspended educational projects in all their Centres, which are now being used as information hubs where social workers can provide Covid-19 risk management information to families.

Given the uncertainties of the situation, our friends and colleagues immediately asked us to stop going to the Bourj el Semali (Tiro) camp to gather footage and interviews for the supporters of our Distance Adoption programme.

The Amel Association has closed the Centre where we used to hold lessons to help boy and girl refugees catch up on their school work. This education project was recently extended for another 4 years, but for now it has been suspended.

One of our most important initiatives in Lebanon was the Civil Peace Corps: 6 young men and women working in the field to promote peace-building and social unity. When the spread of the disease intensified, they started working from home in self-isolation. We continued like this as long as possible. But then the situation started deteriorating on March 9th: there was no way to trace the origins of infections in many areas. The continuing spread of the virus forced the Lebanese government to impose further restrictions from the evening of March 11th, they banned flights to and from Italy and Europe, as well as China, Iran and Korea.

When Beirut Airport closed we had to make a difficult decision. If we stayed in Beirut we risked not having access to healthcare if we got infected, and anyway it had been impossible to work for days. So we had no choice but to return to Italy on March 15th.

We immediately began working with our local partners to find creative ways to continue working remotely, in the hope of getting back to our fieldwork as soon as possible.

We are in regular contact with our teaching staff in the Palestinian camps, who are now distributing educational material to the homes of their schoolgirls and schoolboys. This material was developed with the invaluable input of UPP’s Education Group in Italy.

As Covid-19 continues to spread throughout the country, the government has stopped all non-essential activities and closed the borders. It has also asked the army to ensure public order and enforce the lockdown.

This epidemic has compounded an already precarious situation: the Lebanese government is already officially in economic default, and only the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is in a position to authorise loans, casting further doubts on the provision of medical equipment. Government and IMF estimates suggest that 40% of the Lebanese population will soon be living on the poverty line.
Human Rights Watch also recently raised the alarm in a report raising concerns about measures taken by the government.

In Lebanon, the virus has exposed the huge waste of funds which should have been invested in the public health service which is now completely inadequate. To date (9th April) there have been about 576 infected people with Covid-19 and 12 fatalities.

Only one hospital – Beirut’s Rafik Hariri University – is equipped to test for the disease and receive / isolate Covid patients. A World Bank loan would facilitate the establishment of 8 public hospitals around the country, raising the number of available hospital beds to 12,000. However, there is still the issue of a shortage of ventilators, with an estimated 1000 currently available.

Private hospitals are willing to provide testing services and have each made available 20 beds. At a price, of course.

Given the gravity of the situation and the awareness of the public health service’s inability to cope, most people are self-isolating and the streets of most towns are deserted.

This will inevitably have a considerable impact on the economy, which is already close to collapse, and on the survival of the people who are currently not working. Lebanon doesn’t have anything like the capacity of other countries – like Italy or France – to provide financial support or infection control.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian refugee camps, people are extremely worried about the risks of infection, according to our friends from Assomoud.

The streets of Shatila and Bourj al Barajneh camps are deserted and their shops are respecting the lockdown imposed by the government and are trying to find ways to cope with the situation.

UNHCR and local associations are working together in some camps to provide information, sanitise streets and shared spaces, but the population density here is so high and the sanitation facilities so inadequate that this is probably not going to be enough.

The international community and the NGOs here are in agreement: an outbreak of the virus in the Palestinian and Syrian camps would have catastrophic consequences.

Meanwhile the government remains absolutely silent regarding the fate of the camps and their inhabitants, as well as on the management of such a massive crisis.