Lebanon hunkers down in full shutdown that 'can't fail'

Authorities had declared a state of emergency Monday, ordering a complete shutdown and a 24-hour curfew with only a few establishments allowed to open, including supermarkets that can only operate for deliveries. Essential services and media workers were also exempted

  
People walk along an empty street near the government palace, as Lebanon imposed a partial lockdown for two weeks starting on Friday in an effort to counter the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which have spiralled since the catastrophic explosion at Beirut port, Lebanon August 21, 2020.

People walk along an empty street near the government palace, as Lebanon imposed a partial lockdown for two weeks starting on Friday in an effort to counter the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which have spiralled since the catastrophic explosion at Beirut port, Lebanon August 21, 2020.

REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

BEIRUT: Closed businesses and largely empty streets Thursday marked the start of an 11-day total lockdown in Lebanon in a bid to contain the dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases that have pushed the country's health system to the brink of collapse.

"This is serious," tweeted Dr. Firass Abiad, the chief of Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, the main medical center dealing with coronavirus cases. "The lockdown should not fail. The lockdown can not fail."

Abiad's tweet added, "In the last 24 hours alone, four Covid positive patients presented in cardiac arrest to our emergency room. One of them was a 19 years old patient."

Authorities had declared a state of emergency Monday, ordering a complete shutdown and a 24-hour curfew with only a few establishments allowed to open, including supermarkets that can only operate for deliveries. Essential services and media workers were also exempted.

For the first time, residents are required to request a one-hour permit to be allowed to leave the house for "emergencies," including going to the bakery, pharmacist, doctor, hospital or airport.

Palestinian camps housing tens of thousands of refugees, announced they would abide by the Lebanese government measures.

In the capital, roads were far quieter than usual, while nonessential businesses, including banks, remained shuttered.

But in areas of Beirut where there were no security forces, some people ventured out to buy groceries from local shops.

On social media, users circulated a picture of a traffic jam at one of the entrances to the capital.

The measures are the strictest since the pandemic hit Lebanon late February. But the real test lies in the next few days to see whether citizens will abide by the restrictions and whether the security forces would be strict in enforcing them.

Five previous lockdowns that included many exemptions had been loosely implemented, leading caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab to condemn violators as "reckless" and to urge security forces to be very strict in carrying out their duties.

Police manned checkpoints around the country, checking motorists' permits to be on the road. The curfew is the strictest since the start of the pandemic.

Its announcement on Monday raised fears of food shortages in impoverished and remote regions where deliveries are not readily available.

For several days, Lebanese have flooded supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies in a desperate bid to stock up.

Some are worried the new restrictions will pile additional suffering on the country's poorest amid a severe economic crisis.

Charity Save the Children said it accepted the need for a strict response to the coronavirus uptick, but said it was "very concerned that vulnerable families and their children will be left to deal with a catastrophe on their own."

The Lebanese Army is expected to start shortly handing over a LL400,000 payment to each of some 280,000 poor families after the Finance Ministry transferred LL75 billion to a local state aid agency.

Lebanon had only just announced a nationwide lockdown last week. But many, including the health minister and officials on a government committee, considered it to be too lenient because it exempted many sectors. In some areas of the country, it was business as usual, leading to more calls for a complete shutdown and curfew.

On the eve of the shutdown, Lebanon registered 35 coronavirus deaths, a new one-day record, and 4,988 cases with the total number of cases rising to 231,936. The total number of deaths now stands at 1,740.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday and was taken to a hospital where his condition was said to be good.

The number of cases has risen drastically since the holidays season during which most measures were canceled and people flocked to parties, restaurants and clubs.

The rise pushed hospitals to the brink with many having to turn patients away or treat them in their cars in the parking space outside these institutions. With an economic crisis biting hard, shortages of key medicines and oxygen canisters were reported across the country.

The Jan.14-25 lockdown comes shortly before the first shipment of vaccines was due to arrive. Officials said the country was still on course to start its inoculation campaign as scheduled around mid-February.

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