'The last call': Lebanon’s fuel crisis threatens hospitals with closure

Cash-strapped hospitals shut down air conditioning and lights in a bid to save electricity despite health risks

Lebanon’s acute fuel shortages during the hottest month in the year are not only plunging the country in darkness but also threatening major hospitals with closure and endangering people's lives, healthcare workers have told The National.

Like many health centres, Notre-Dame Des Secours University Hospital has tried to reduce its electricity consumption in the past months in administrative areas by turning off lights, lifts and cooling systems.

But last week, the hospital had to turn off the air conditioning in a bloc of 37 patients’ rooms for three hours, a measure which raises the risk of hospital-acquired infections, medics said.

“This is unacceptable,” said economic affairs director Etoile Matar, standing in a dimly lit corridor of the private hospital in Jbeil, a coastal town north of Beirut.

The healthcare of the hospital's patients was unharmed during the three-hour cut but “if this continues, it will pose a serious health risk”, she told The National.

Quote
A hospital without electricity simply does not exist. It’s like a car without petrol.
Firass Abiad, director of Rafik Hariri University Hospital

There has never been round-the-clock electricity since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Before the country’s severe financial crisis began two years ago, power cuts in the capital used to be limited to three hours a day and could reach up to 12 hours outside Beirut.

Hospitals, like private homes and businesses, rely on private generators to make up for the state’s deficiencies. But those generators are now running almost constantly as Lebanon’s state-run electricity company Electricité du Liban provides as little as two hours of power each day.

Faced with increased demand and reduced imports, fuel suppliers are running low on their stocks of subsidised fuel, prompting huge queues at petrol stations. Private generator owners, which serve entire neighbourhoods, turn off their generators for over 12 hours a day.

In hospitals, where lives are at stake, the staff are left with tough decisions.

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This is the last call. We can’t come to work. We can’t look after the sick. We would be committing a crime if we continue this way.
Khalil Kain, a hospital employee

Some ask patients to buy drugs themselves despite knowing that they will struggle to find them in pharmacies due to crippling medical shortages caused by the crisis.

“We have to tell them to buy the medicine and come back. We can’t do anything but pray for them,” said biomedical engineer Rayan Kalo, who works in a government hospital in the coastal southern city of Saida.

Her colleague Khalil Kain, who heads the employees’ union, said he feared that Saida’s public hospital would close soon.

“We’re not joking. This is the last call. We can’t come to work. We can’t look after the sick. We would be committing a crime if we continue this way,” he said, at a protest organised by staff outside the hospital on Monday. “We have no idea what will happen in the coming weeks.”

Recently, all the hospital's generators shut down after working 36 hours continuously, said Ms Kalo. A full half-hour passed before electricity returned.

“Thank God we had no Covid patients on ventilators,” she said. “Lebanon’s medical sector is heading towards a catastrophe.”

The Energy Ministry responded to a plea for help sent out by the union of private hospitals on Sunday by sending state-subsidised fuel to 10 hospitals.

But the delivery to Notre-Dame des Secours Hospital was only enough for one day and it remains unclear whether deliveries will continue.

“How come the government finds officially priced fuel as soon as hospitals start protesting?” asked Sami Rizk, chief executive of the Lebanese American University Hospital. “They need to provide us with this fuel. We already have huge budget problems.”

Shortages have triggered a black market which few hospitals can afford.

The National has requested a comment from caretaker energy minister Raymond Ghajar.

On Monday, lack of electricity and fuel forced one of Lebanon’s two producers of intravenous fluid to stop working.

“We are going to suffer from shortages of the serum and this threatens the lives of all patients,” said Mary Raad, a pharmacist at Notre-Dame Des Secours Hospital.

Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the country’s largest hospital and its main Covid-19 health centre, has also switched off air-conditioning in administrative areas and cut clinical operations by nearly 20 per cent, said its director Firass Abiad.

He has warned in the past that the hospital will not be able to handle a surge of Covid-19 cases, which are currently relatively low, but increasing.

Elsewhere, the hospital's non-Covid emergency rooms remain busy.

“If we start shutting down those areas, where will those patients go? We are pushing back on this decision but we don’t know for how long,” Mr Abiad told The National.

“A hospital without electricity simply does not exist. It’s like a car without petrol,” he said.

Hospital staff say they are close to breaking point.

At Saida government hospital, salaries are two months late, and close to 60 per cent of the 300 employees are unable to go to work because they cannot find fuel for their cars.

About 25 nurses recently quit for better paid jobs abroad, and there is little hope of recruiting new staff, said Mr Kain. “Who would apply to work in a hospital that doesn’t pay its own employees?” he asked.

Updated: August 12th 2021, 6:57 AM
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