Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital forced to close operating rooms due to crippling power cuts

Rafic Hariri University Hospital ‘barely making ends meet’ and has just a few weeks left of generator fuel, director-general warns

Bel Trew
Monday 06 July 2020 19:32 BST
A man disinfects an intensive care isolation room at the Rafik Hariri public hospital in the Lebanese capital Beirut
A man disinfects an intensive care isolation room at the Rafik Hariri public hospital in the Lebanese capital Beirut

Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital has been forced to close operating rooms and delay surgeries amid lengthy power cuts caused by the country’s spiralling economic crisis.

Dr Firass Abiad, director general of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital, told The Independent that Lebanon’s largest public healthcare facility was “barely making ends meet” and running out of fuel to power generators that are struggling to cover power outages that now stretch 15 hours.

Consequently, over the last few days the hospital has closed two of the six remaining operating rooms that are working, slashing their already diminished capacity by two-thirds and causing surgeries to be delayed.

Despite the soaring summer temperatures, the hospital, which has treated over 90 per cent of the country’s 2,000 or so confirmed coronavirus cases, has also turned off all air-conditioning units in the administrative offices of the facility and in the corridors to ensure wards and intensive care units can be cooled, the director general added.

He warned that if the crippling power cuts continue, the hospital would have just enough fuel to man the generators for the next three weeks.

The crisis at the hospital is part of the fallout of deteriorating economic conditions in the country, which is in the grips of an unprecedented financial crisis.

Inside the Coronavirus wards of Lebanon

The Lebanese currency, the lira, has lost 80 per cent of its value since October, briefly sinking last week to a record low of more than 9,500 to the dollar on the black market, although it is still officially pegged at 1,500 by the country’s Central Bank.

Residents have rushed to purchase candles as electricity, usually cut three hours a day in Beirut, has been off for more than 15 hours at a time due to fuel shortages.

In a statement on Monday, Rafic Hariri University Hospital said it had appealed to the government to exclude healthcare facilities from electricity rationing and thanked Total Lebanon, the local subsidiary of the French energy giant, for donating it with fuel to power generators during the worst of the outages.

“The hospital is barely making ends meet, we are near total capacity and any increase in our expenditure means we have to make cuts to buy fuel,” Dr Abiad said.

“We are the hospital of last resort. If we cannot function properly, I don’t know what that will mean. We are fire-fighting problems at the moment,” he added.

A hospital spokesperson said that if the cuts continue, it could endanger lives.

“If the situation continues through to September, when we are concerned about a second wave of Covid-19, it could be a catastrophe,” the spokesperson added.

Lebanon, one of the most indebted countries in the world, was already limping through a financial crisis last autumn before the arrival of the coronavirus in March added further economic pressure.

The government has been accused of doing little to fix the worsening crisis, which is rooted in decades of mismanagement and corruption. At least 15 rounds of talks with the International Monetary Fund have shuddered to halt with no bailout deal.

Meanwhile, the cost of staples like rice and beans have more than doubled since last year, sending people rushing to supermarkets to stock up.

Economy minister Raoul Nehme announced last week that for the first time in a decade the price of bread will rise. The cost of 900 grams (32 ounces) of bread, a main staple in Lebanon, will go up by a third to 2,000 lira (£1).

The sharp increase in prices has even meant the Lebanese army has stopped offering meat in meals given to soldiers while on duty because the military “is suffering from difficult economic conditions”, the state-run National News Agency reported.

In fact, meat has become so expensive to obtain that last week the union of butchers and cattle farmers told local media more than 60 per cent of butcher shops had closed. Meanwhile, the country’s farmers’ association warned of protests this Tuesday amid the skyrocketing costs.

Adding to the misery are the electricity cuts. The state-owned telecommunications provider Ogero warned on Monday that the outages are so great it might even see internet connections collapse.

Residents of Beirut reported that traffic lights were beginning to falter.

Financial experts told The Independent last week inflation hit 510 per cent year on year and the country is careering towards official hyperinflation.

On Monday, Lebanon’s Labour minister Lamia Douaihy announced that Lebanon’s unemployment rate had soared to 30 per cent, up from 11.4 per cent last year. It is expected to rise further.

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