Fearing 'disaster', Lebanon mulls new virus lockdown

Beirut (AFP) –

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Lebanon, mired in economic turmoil deepened by the Beirut port blast three months ago, is weighing a second nationwide lockdown to stem a surge in coronavirus cases.

"Today we're at a very dangerous crossroads," said caretaker health minister Hamad Hassan, warning that hospitals are running out of intensive care beds.

"We're approaching a disastrous situation," he was quoted as saying Sunday by the official National News Agency.

The country of six million people has recorded 83,697 cases of Covid-19 including 652 deaths since February. Around a third of the population are Syrian or Palestinian refugees, many living in overcrowded camps.

A first country-wide lockdown imposed in March was effective in stemming the spread of the virus, and restrictions were gradually lifted as summer beckoned people outdoors.

But then daily infections slowly ticked up again -- and they surged after the monstrous Beirut port blast of August 4 ravaged swathes of the capital and overwhelmed hospitals.

Daily new cases have risen from a few dozen in early summer to more than 1,000 now.

Hassan sounded the alarm on Sunday, warning that "in some cases, there are no beds in intensive care. This needs to be taken very seriously."

But, with poverty rising amid Lebanon's worst economic downturn since the 1975-1990 civil war, many people are deeply fearful about the country grinding to a halt for a second time this trying year.

- 'We'll die of hunger' -

"If we shut down for a month, we'll die of hunger," said the owner of a clothes shop in Beirut's southern suburbs who asked to only be identified as Mike.

Until now he has managed to pay the salaries of his two employees, but he says a new lockdown would force him to let them go.

"How will I pay them? We've held up as much as we could, but we can't much longer," said the 38-year-old father of two.

Lebanon has already imposed a raft of restrictions in recent weeks, but compliance has been patchy and the country has largely continued to function as usual.

In early October it began imposing targeted lockdowns on 111 towns and villages where the virus was spreading fast.

And with infections climbing, authorities imposed a night-time curfew from Monday across Lebanon, after ordering the closure of bars and nightclubs.

The authorities now fear the health sector will be overwhelmed, especially as several major Beirut hospitals were badly damaged in the August 4 explosion that killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands.

- Hospital beds running out -

The World Health Organization said at the end of October that 88 percent of Lebanon's 306 intensive care beds were occupied.

On Monday, Hassan announced that private hospitals -- which make up 80 percent of all those nationwide -- would have to ready themselves within the next week to receive Covid-19 patients.

The first lockdown compounded an already devastating economic crisis that had caused tens of thousands to lose their jobs or take pay cuts.

The value of the local currency has plummeted, prices have soared, and poverty has risen to impact more than half of the population.

Caretaker interior minister Mohammed Fahmi on Sunday said he realised some people feared more economic hardship.

"Some Lebanese say: 'I'd rather my children and I died of Covid than of hunger,'" he said during a televised interview.

But he stressed he was still in favour of a new stay-at-home order for the entire country.

Even the restaurant owners' syndicate -- usually opposed to confinement measures -- on Sunday called for a "total lockdown" for two weeks.

"It's better to do it in November than in December during the (Christmas) holidays," the group said.