Why Lebanon is being hit with travel bans as coronavirus is ‘under control’

Health experts say closing schools was an over-correction after a slow initial response that spooked countries with flights to Beirut

TOPSHOT - Sanitary workers disinfect the desks and chairs of the Lebanese Parliament in central Beirut on March 10, 2020 amid the spread of coronavirus in the country.  / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
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The coronavirus epidemic is under control in Lebanon despite the country being hit by travel bans by numerous countries over the past days, Lebanese officials told The National.

On Tuesday, Jordan became the latest country to suspend flights to Lebanon due to concerns about the spread of the virus, after Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

On the same day, the Lebanese Parliament's building was disinfected, and sessions were suspended for a week. Schools, bars and cafes remain closed.

There are now 52 recorded cases of coronavirus in Lebanon and on Tuesday the country marked its second death.


Fears of a rapid spread of the coronavirus, officially called Covid-19, were initially fuelled by the fact that Lebanon’s first case was a 45-year old woman travelling from the city of Qom, the centre of the outbreak in Iran.

Fear is exacerbated by the fact that densely populated Lebanon has a large refugee population and is already reeling from a severe economic crisis that has put its health sector at risk of running out of medical equipment amid massive anti-government protests.

Then there is the close relationship between Lebanon and Iran.

As of Wednesday, 291 had died in Iran and over 8,000 are infected. About 2,730 people have reportedly recovered.

Tehran’s main link to Lebanon flows through Hezbollah.

This fuelled speculation in local media that party members, which often travel to Iran, had been infected and placed in quarantine.

However, a high-ranking Hezbollah official denied this in Lebanese media.

By late February, Beirut had suspended flights from Iran except for Lebanese nationals and foreign residents, Health Ministry Director General Walid Ammar said.

"We have banned commercial and touristic visits from Iran, but it is the right of Lebanese citizens to be allowed to return to their country," he told The National.

Lebanon also halted flights from Italy, China and South Korea – other countries with major outbreaks.

However, Salim Adib, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the American University of Beirut, argues it was not flights from Iran that alarmed the international community.

On February 29, Lebanon ordered all the schools and universities to shut their doors to help contain the spread. This was less than a week after the first case.

Is was this move, Mr Adib believes, that led other countries to list Lebanon as a high-risk nation.

“The government of Lebanon was not aware that when it shut schools in the whole country, that meant that is had gone one step further in declaring the gravity of the epidemic,” said Mr Adib.

“At the time, the decision was premature. It was an attempt to correct an earlier negligence in [not] confining travellers who had returned from countries with known high level of the epidemic, including Iran and Italy.”

However, the spread of Covid-19 in Lebanon is now “under control,” he said.

The Health Ministry’s Mr Ammar said they recognised at the time that the decision of the Education Ministry to close schools was premature.

“But looking back at what happened in the world, particularly in Italy, I think it was wise,” he said.

The whole of Italy, where 631 people have died of Covid-19, is currently under quarantine with restrictions on movement.

Pierre Abi Hanna, head of the infectious diseases department at Rafic Hariri Hospital, a government medical centre in Beirut that has been treating all of Lebanon’s Covid-19 cases, said that the clusters of infected patients are “limited and contained.”

Patients who are not properly insured, which is often the case in Lebanon, are treated for free, said Mr Ammar.

He said that most travellers returning from high-risk countries are following advice from the Health Ministry to self-quarantine for two weeks. “They are much more compliant now than before because they are panicking,” said Mr Ammar.

However, the number of infected patients is still expected to rise significantly, Mr Adib explained.

“We’ll probably reach a peak in the coming two weeks, with anywhere between 100 and 200 cases and then it will start going down,” he said.

Two additional hospitals started admitting patients this week: Hotel Dieu in Beirut and Notre Dame de Secours Hospital, in Jbeil, north of the capital, said Mr Ammar.

Four private university hospitals in Beirut will also begin screening, at a cost of 150,000 Lebanese Pounds (Dh 363) – a steep price in a cash-strapped country facing an economic crisis.