War-torn Syria promised oxygen supplies to neighbouring Lebanon as both countries struggle with unprecedented economic woes and a surge of coronavirus infections.
“We will supply Lebanon with 75 tonnes of oxygen in instalments of 25 tonnes a day for a period of three days,” Health Minister Hasan al-Ghabbash told reporters after a meeting with his Lebanese counterpart on Wednesday.
The oxygen shipment, which will be delivered “immediately”, will not strain Syria’s supplies, al-Ghabbash said, adding the first delivery arrived that day.
From his side, Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hasan told Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV the shipment was a “direct gift” from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who responded to the country’s humanitarian request for the oxygen.
“We have around 1,000 patients on breathing aid in Lebanon’s emergency rooms” and oxygen supplies “honestly are only enough to last for today”, he added.
For Lebanon, Syria’s gesture comes at a time of political deadlock among rival groups who are deeply divided over Syria. Hasan is allied with the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has been a main backer of al-Assad.
Lebanon has struggled with a surge of COVID-19 infections since the start of 2021, and a weeks-long lockdown has only brought the numbers down slightly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said intensive care unit beds are more than 85 percent full in the country of six million people, including more than one million Syrian refugees.
Since last year, Lebanon has recorded nearly 445,000 infections and 5,850 deaths.
But the situation is critical in Syria as well where people are struggling with a healthcare system battered by 10 years of conflict and dependent on foreign aid as al-Assad’s government faces growing Western sanctions.
WHO officials said hospital beds are at full capacity in the capital Damascus, and infections are at their highest amid a dearth of testing capabilities.
The WHO told Al Jazeera in October last year there were fewer than three beds available for every 10,000 people – three times less than international standards. According to a United Nations report published in March last year, 70 percent of health workers left the country since the start of the war in 2011.
Both Syria and Lebanon are also witnessing an unprecedented crash of their local currencies.
A vaccination campaign began in Lebanon last month with more than 970,000 people registered and some 156,000 doses already administered.
The Syrian government kicked off its vaccination campaign last week.
The WHO announced on Tuesday it will also oversee a vaccination rollout in Syria, expected to start in April with the aim of inoculating 20 percent of the population by the end of 2021.