Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon extended a brutal lockdown for two weeks amid a record number of COVID-related deaths and a steady rise in the number of new cases that have pushed the country’s health system to its limits.
Meanwhile, a senior health official announced plans for a vaccine rollout in the crisis-stricken country which he said would see some three million people in the country – roughly half of the population – receiving the vaccine by the end of the year.
Assem Araji, head of the parliamentary health committee in Lebanon, announced that the first batch of doses of Pfizer, based in the United States, would arrive in the first week of February with priority given to healthcare workers and people over 74 years old.
Lebanon has struggled to bring a COVID outbreak under control since the August port explosion that left 200 people dead, more than 6,000 injured and destroyed large parts of Beirut, including several hospitals.
Cases have grown from double digits to hundreds in July and over a thousand by the end of September and have averaged over 5,000 per day since the start of the year with a positivity rate of around 20%, indicating a wide spread of the community.
The country implemented a nationwide lockdown with a nighttime curfew on January 7, allowing for a series of exceptions.
But daily records of new cases continued to be broken and an outcry from medical professionals led officials to impose a strict lockdown with a 24-hour curfew on January 14.
Originally scheduled to last only 11 days, the lockdown was extended on Thursday until February 8.
Under the strict measures, most businesses and factories have to close, and even supermarkets and restaurants can only operate by home delivery.
The complete lockdown has raised eyebrows in a country struggling with a deep financial crisis that has left more than half of the population in poverty, many of whom are living hand to mouth.
The Lebanese state has pledged to provide aid in the amount of less than $ 50 per month to some 280,000 families, but aid groups have said this falls short of the overwhelming demand for aid.
“Every day, our charity receives hundreds or thousands of distress calls from all over the country – not just from refugees but from Lebanese families,” said Fadi Haliso, co-founder of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a humanitarian organization that mainly helps the Syrians. refugees in Lebanon.
In a video posted to Twitter, Haliso said that “even people from very nice neighborhoods” are asking for “food packages, infant formula, rent assistance because they couldn’t afford the moths and are threatened with deportation ”.
Araji said the lockdown could be extended further if the number of cases remains high.
Firas Abiad, the head of Lebanon’s largest hospital providing COVID care, said lifting or easing the lockdown now “will surely lead to a collapse of the health care system and result in more deaths. It is unacceptable and unacceptable. “
Last week, January 14-21, the daily death record was broken five days a week, with a total of 411 dead. The week before, the total number was 159.
“Things are bad,” a doctor from the Beirut Intensive Care Unit (ICU) told Al Jazeera, noting that there were no more intensive care beds in the capital and even the wards. emergency were getting crowded.
Many hospitals had previously announced that they would only perform procedures on non-COVID patients in an emergency.
“We have to turn patients away … many are at home using oxygen and on waiting lists until a place opens, and people are having a really hard time finding hospitals in their area, ”the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity. of the question.
As the situation grows darker by the day, many Lebanese have placed their hopes on rolling out a vaccination program which health officials say will begin in mid-February.
Details of this program were clarified by Araji following a meeting Thursday with the committee that developed the country’s immunization plan.
Lebanon has so far placed orders or is about to place orders for more than six million doses of the vaccine, enough for three million people in the country, Araji said; 2.1 million from Pfizer, over 2.5 million from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program and an additional two million from Astra-Zenica.
The World Bank announced Thursday that it has approved a loan of $ 34 million to pay for vaccines for more than two million people in Lebanon.
Araji said 250,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine would arrive in the first quarter of the year; 350,000 in the second trimester; 800,000 in the third quarter; and 600,000 in the fourth quarter. Vaccines for other sources would also be deployed during the same period, but the exact method is not yet clear, he said.
The vaccinations will take place in 35 centers across the country, most in public hospitals but some in private hospitals in Beirut, Araji said, noting that they would each have the capacity to vaccinate around 2,000 people per day.
He said people of all nationalities – not just Lebanese need to be vaccinated for the plan to work.
Priority will be given to health workers and those over 74, followed by those over 65, then those over 54, before vaccinations are offered to the rest of the population. Those under 18 would need parental consent, he said.
Lebanese residents will soon be able to register for vaccination online or over the phone, he said, adding that it would take “no less than a year” for Lebanon to achieve collective immunity, which, according to him, would significantly slow the spread of the disease and allow for life to return to something similar to what it was before the pandemic.