Lebanon announces night-time curfew as Covid-19 cases surge

Head of parliamentary health committee tells 'The National' that the country needs to go in complete lockdown despite economic hit

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator, wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), attends a protest against the growing economic hardship and to mark Labour Day in Beirut, Lebanon May 1, 2020. The word "Revolution" reads on the mask. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Lebanon needs a complete nationwide lockdown to stop Covid-19 overwhelming the country's embattled medical system, the head of Parliament's Health Committee told The National on Sunday as the Interior Ministry extended an already existing nation-wide night-time curfew until November 9.

The Lebanese Interior Security Forces said on Sunday afternoon that the new curfew would start on Monday from 9pm to 5am, instead of 1am to 6am. Social gatherings, including weddings, are banned but restaurants can remain open at a 50 per cent capacity except in 115 towns that are in full lockdown.

MP Assem Araji said that Lebanon needs a lockdown across the country for at least “two weeks to prepare new ICU beds”.

"Between 90 and 95 per cent of intensive care unit beds for coronavirus patients are full," MP Assem Araji told The National. "The virus is spreading quite fast nowadays and in 10 or 15 days we'll start having cold weather."

Lebanon is facing a surge of Covid-19 cases but hospitals in the country have limited capacities to treat patients due to a severe economic crisis that has restricted imports in the past year. As cases continue to climb at over 1,000 a day, doctors are also falling ill with the head of an ICU unit reportedly contracting Covid-19 on Sunday.

Caretaker Health Minister Hassan Hamad warned on Friday that the country was “approaching a second wave”.

The Health Ministry reported that 12 people had died of Covid-19 in the previous 24 hours to Saturday evening, bringing the total up to 637. So far, 81,228 people have contracted the virus in the country of roughly 5 million inhabitants.

Lebanese hospitals need to at least double their existing 300 ICU beds and 700 isolation beds, Mr Araji told The National. Twelve out of 27 government hospitals have set up coronavirus treatment centres, compared to only 25 out of 130 private hospitals. "Those that can afford it should set up Covid centres," said Mr Araji.

“Our economic situation is very bad, I know. But, what can you do? You have a medical sector [that] is exhausted and most likely is going to collapse,” he said.

In July, Sleiman Haroun, head of the syndicate of private hospitals, told The National that Lebanon's private healthcare system was falling apart. About 60 per cent of private hospitals had reduced their operations because of increasingly high running costs caused by a shortage of dollars.

Firass Abiad, head of Lebanon’s largest public hospital, said on Sunday that local medical facilities “are being challenged as they receive more and more critical patients following the recent sharp rise in cases”.

Medical staff have not been spared. On Saturday, the state-run National News Agency reported that Pierre Edde, the head of the ICU for Covid-19 patients at a hospital north of the Lebanese capital, tested positive for the coronavirus.

The announcement came hours after the chairman of the board of directors at Saida government hospital, Ahmed Al Samadi, also said he had contracted the virus.

Several government officials said they were in favour of tighter restrictions despite the additional blow it could represent for Lebanon’s already struggling economy.

The mayor of Saida, 45 kilometres south of Beirut, told The Daily Star newspaper that he was considering a total lockdown of the city of more than 200,000 inhabitants.

Employees at Saida’s government hospital have not been paid for three months and six coronavirus patients have been kept in the emergency department because the ICU had run out of beds, he added.

Bachir Khodr, governor of the eastern region of Baalbek Hermel, introduced a week-long partial lockdown in the region’s capital Baalbek on Friday. “We will be forced to close completely if the number of Covid-19 cases and non-compliance [to safety measures continue to] increase,” he wrote on Twitter.

There have also been fears of a rapid spread of the virus among inmates, with 476 cases of Covid-19 recorded in Lebanon’s overcrowded prison of Roumieh, outside Beirut.

But, the general directorate of the Internal Security Forces issued a statement on Friday saying that 440 detainees had recovered.

On Saturday, caretaker Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada announced that the ministry would be partially closed after it emerged that several employees had contracted Covid-19.

Lebanon has been under partial lockdown for the past month, with a nightly curfew from 1am to 6am. Bars and nightclubs are closed, and additional measures are applied to dozens of towns where the virus is considered to be spreading exponentially. But they are not strictly enforced.

The government’s response had been hindered by a political deadlock caused by the explosion on August 4 of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port. The blast killed 204 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on August 11.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who was forced to step down due to nationwide anti-government protests last year, was chosen by parliamentarians to return to the premiership on October 22 and has yet to form a Cabinet.