Lebanon orders full lockdown to combat COVID-19, boost hospital beds

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon ordered a full lockdown for around two weeks to stem a rise in COVID-19 infections and allow a badly strained health sector to bolster capacity as the country buckled under a financial meltdown.

FILE PHOTO: Women wait to get tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon October 1, 2020. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

The Supreme Defence Council said in a statement on Tuesday the lockdown starting Saturday would be in place until Nov. 30, with vital sectors and food delivery exempt. The airport and borders will remain open.

“We have reached a very dangerous stage as public and private hospitals can no longer admit critical cases because all beds are occupied,” Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said, warning the shutdown may be extended if people do not comply.

Lebanon registered 1,119 new infections on Monday, bringing its total to 95,355 cases and 732 deaths since Feb. 21.

Intensive care units reached critical capacity as the virus spread after the August port blast that wrecked swathes of Beirut, killed 200 people and destroyed several hospitals. Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has also been lax.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan has said a partial lockdown had not yielded results and a full one was needed for hospitals to scale up capacity despite concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Human Rights Watch said food and cash aid would be vital during the lockdown, with more than 55% of the population living below the poverty line.

“If Lebanon wants to avert a humanitarian disaster, it should ensure people can comply with public health measures without worrying about their next meal,” it said.

The financial crisis has crashed the currency and paralysed banks, freezing savers out of their deposits. Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars grow scarce.

Hasan has said an agreement was reached with the central bank to allocate funds for private hospitals to set up COVID-19 wings and that the state would pay hospital dues for the first six months of 2020.

The government had for years owed hospitals arrears and their unpaid bills are mounting as Lebanon faces its worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Reporting by Beirut bureau; Editing by Bernadette Baum