COVID cases surge in Lebanon ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations

Warnings as cases near record high; health minister fears Omicron surge could overwhelm hospitals during peak tourism period.

A sign reading "Always be merry" is seen among Christmas decorations in downtown Beirut
Fewer than 65 percent of Lebanese registered for vaccinations while just over a third of the population took both doses [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – With its economy in tatters and political bickering holding back prospects of recovery, Lebanon has had little reason to celebrate in 2021.

Around the end of the year, Lebanese expatriates and tourists pour into the country, giving famished restaurants, pubs and nightclubs a much-needed cash injection.

But while hotels, restaurants and nightclubs prepare for buzzing New Year’s Eve celebrations, doctors and healthcare workers fear a public health hangover with spiking COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant.

Omicron, which was first reported in South Africa last month, has become the dominant variant in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other parts of Europe.

Cases across Lebanon country are surging. On Thursday, the Lebanese health ministry reported 4,537 cases, increasing from 3,153 the day before.

Fewer than 65 percent of Lebanese registered for vaccinations while just over a third of the population took both doses.

“We still haven’t seen how it [Omicron] functions in a country that isn’t well-vaccinated like ours,” Health Minister Firass Abiad told Al Jazeera.

“We have to assume the rate of hospitalisations might increase rapidly and we have to prepare according to that assumption.”

Abiad added that bed capacity has been increased by 30 percent, primarily in public hospitals.

Though some studies have reported that the new variant is milder than its predecessors, the United Nations has warned it is far too early to be reassured by the existing data.

On Wednesday, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he fears the transmission of Omicron and Delta variants of the novel coronavirus could put “immense pressure” on hospitals.

Lebanon’s health sector has been struggling due to the economic crisis – skyrocketing fuel, medicine prices and the Lebanese pound losing more than 90 percent of its value in just over two years.

Public hospitals have especially relied on international assistance to cover costs to be able to function.

Weak state, battered economy

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi issued a decree that would restrict capacity at restaurants and nightlife venues and implement other safety measures.

But there are fears that Lebanese security agencies will struggle to implement the new measures – as they did a year ago – which led to an increase in deaths and a hard lockdown.

Packed hospitals were forced to treat patients in their cars and on footpaths, and even turned stretchers into makeshift beds.

Due to high demand, there was a shortage of oxygen machines.

The Lebanese health minister said he and the country’s COVID-19 committee have met with the heads of syndicates, including the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night Clubs and Bakeries.

But while an agreement was reached on measures, Abiad said there has been no implementation.

“They say numbers are dropping, this is the excuse we hear,” Abiad said.

Tussle with the government

In a television interview earlier this week, Tony Ramy, who heads the syndicate, said restaurants and nightclubs have done their part but the government has not.

“There is a lack of mask-wearing culture in Lebanon and we’re seeing overcrowding,” Ramy said, denying that the tourism industry has contributed to the surge in cases.

“Cases started increasing two weeks ago, that is before we started doing our work.”

Abiad, however, has asked residents to be more cautious.

“There hasn’t been a day where someone from the health sector hasn’t warned people to take precautions – it’s almost fear-mongering at times,” he said, adding that “we are still seeing pervasive behaviour” that can not be handled by the health sector.

“People are saying we should close the country [lockdown] but it’s not just about the decision, it’s about implementing it,” he added.

Dr Jade Khalife, a physician specialising in health systems and epidemiology, told Al Jazeera that Lebanon needed to change its COVID-19 strategy which he termed “illogical”.

“Countries like Lebanon that rely purely on mitigation, over-relied on vaccines and yo-yo lockdowns,” said Khalife.

“We need a containment approach where we track all cases, isolate them and quarantine their immediate contacts instead of just focusing on the overall number of cases.”

But Lebanon is facing a dilemma – not only is the government short on financial and human resources to strictly implement protective measures, it is also reeling from what the World Bank describes as one of the worst economic crises in at least a century.

Khalife said that compromising public health for the economy will not be successful in the long run.

“Countries that have tried to save the economy but ignore public health, ultimately lose both. Countries that prioritised health, saved both.”

Source: Al Jazeera