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Beirut explosion: Coronavirus cases rise 180 per cent in wake of devastating port blast

Lebanese government imposes new two-week lockdown in attempt to contain recent surge in cases

Samuel Lovett
Thursday 20 August 2020 17:39 BST
Head of search and rescue team at Beirut blast site speaks about missing people

Beirut has recorded a 180 per cent increase in Covid-19 cases since the city was rocked by the explosion that killed at least 178 people earlier this month, according to a human rights group.

As the Lebanese capital continues to recover from the fallout of the devastating blast, which also injured thousands and has left 300,000 people homeless, concern has been raised over how the city’s health services will handle a second coronavirus wave.

The deadly port explosion destroyed at least three major hospitals, putting them out of service, and damaged another two.

One of the hardest hit was St George, among the country’s main coronavirus treatment and testing facilities.

An assessment conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) also showed that dozens of clinics and health centres in the capital are “non-functional”. An estimated 500 beds have been lost in total.

Now, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian aid group, has warned that Beirut is facing the prospect of a new surge in cases which could further cripple a city already on its knees.

It said authorities had recorded a 180 per cent increase in cases since 4 August, the day of the blast, with 589 new infections reported on Wednesday alone – the highest daily figure since the beginning of the pandemic.

Matias Meier, country director for the IRC in Lebanon, said: “People are still trying to recover from the devastation that the explosion caused – they’re still trying to process what happened. And none of the worries that they had before the explosion, have gone away.

“People still can’t afford food. People are still out of work – and 70,000 more have now reportedly been left unemployed. For Lebanon to have a chance at getting back on its feet, we need to stop the coronavirus from spreading any further.”

Amid the recent surge in cases, the Lebanese government announced earlier this week that it will impose a two-week lockdown to contain the virus.

Markets, shopping centres, gyms and pools will have to close from Friday and there will be an overnight curfew.

The WHO said last week that Lebanon had done a “very impressive job” of tackling the coronavirus, which has killed at least 107 people in the country since February.

However, even before the blast there had been an upward trend in the daily numbers of new cases, prompting the government to declare a partial lockdown to help manage hospitals’ caseloads.

While coronavirus cases were at more than 3,300 on the day of the explosion, this figure has since risen to 10,347, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

Addressing the new restrictions that come into place on Friday, the IRC said that “people’s livelihoods are likely to further deteriorate”.

“Without support, vulnerable communities will continue to struggle in silence putting lives at risk amidst a faltering health system, collapsing economy, and a rampant dangerous disease,” said Ms Meier.

“We’re providing emergency cash assistance to those most in need, but it is essential that humanitarian agencies are supported and able to continue their work through this critical time so that all those who need support can receive it.”

Investigations are underway into the causes of the explosion.

Initial assessments show it was caused by nearly 3,000 tonnes of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, that is used to make fertilisers and bombs, catching fire.

The country’s leadership has come under fire after it emerged both president Michel Aoun and prime minister Hassan Diab knew about the dangerous stockpile three weeks before the explosion.

The United Nations said earlier this month that 8,000 structures were damaged by the blast, among them 640 historic buildings of which 60 are at risk of collapse.

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