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Lebanon scores high marks on coronavirus front

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Beirut (AFP)

Even as it scrambles to avoid economic collapse, Lebanon has recorded some of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the Middle East since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The health ministry has warned it is too early to cry victory, but a three-month lockdown is gradually being lifted.

- Low infection -

The first confirmed case was reported on February 21 among a group who flew in from a pilgrimage in hard-hit Iran.

Projections on the spread of the pandemic in a country that only had 128 beds available for coronavirus patients were bleak, with forecasts putting the death toll in the hundreds.

By June 3, however, the country of six million had only recorded 1,256 cases of COVID-19 and 27 deaths.

Lebanon's deaths per million are among the lowest in the region -- along with others including Jordan and Tunisia -- and far below those of Iran, Turkey, Israel and several Gulf states.

"If we compare our infection rate per million inhabitants and our mortality rate, we are faring much better than countries around us," Souha Kanj, head of the infectious diseases department at the American University of Beirut, told AFP.

While some cases have gone unreported and the scale of testing remains limited, health experts agree that major outbreaks could not have gone unnoticed.

Most new infections were reported among Lebanese recently repatriated on special flights and the authorities have only recorded two deaths over the past month.

- Government response -

Lebanon was faster than most other countries to decide on a lockdown. By the end of February, schools were closed, and the airport and most bars and restaurants soon follow suit.

"We had some good preparation already in place at the beginning," Firass Abiad, who heads the Rafik Hariri Hospital, the main public health facility in Beirut, told AFP.

Tests were quickly set up at the airport and a tracing unit at the health ministry was rapidly created to monitor and contain the virus.

At the peak of the restrictions, a nighttime curfew starting at 7:00 pm was slapped on the country and daytime traffic allowed only under conditions with an alternate license plate policy.

Wearing a mask was made compulsory on the street, fines were handed down to businesses that did not enforce social distancing and driving was banned altogether on Sundays.

With encouraging figures on the containment of coronavirus, deconfinement measures are now well under way and the airport is scheduled to reopen within weeks.

- Only in Lebanon? -

According to Kanj, some other factors may also explain Lebanon's performance in combatting Covid-19.

She highlighted the effectiveness of an awareness campaign launched in Lebanon at the very onset of the pandemic.

The numbers of infectious diseases specialists per inhabitant and critical care doctors are high in Lebanon, a country that has long had some of the region's best health facilities, Kanj said.

There has been some suggestion that genetic factors may make some people more or less prone to infection in different parts of the world, although that remains to be scientifically established.

Paradoxically, the Lebanese people's extremely low expectations of effective government action in the midst of an economic collapse played a positive role.

"People wanted even to take the extra safety measures... We didn't have to do a lot to convince them to stay at home. That the people overreacted to a certain extent was good," the hospital's Abiad said.

Also, said Kanj, "we don't have public transport. This time it played to our benefit."

In an interview with AFP on Monday, Health Minister Hamad Hassan -- who has generally been given high marks for his handling of the crisis -- warned that the battle was not quite over yet.

"I think the worst-case scenario has passed and is behind us, but at the same time we need to stay alert," he said.

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