Catastrophic increase in COVID-19 infections bring hospitals to near collapse
by Fady Noun

According to experts, the country is paying dearly for two weeks of holidays carelessness and recklessness. Healthcare facilities have hit their maximum bed capacity. The authorities have appealed to private hospitals to take COVID-19 patients, but frozen bank accounts deny access to resources and aid.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Lebanon is paying a high price for two weeks of carelessness, some would say recklessness, given the way many celebrate the holidays.

Traditionally, the Christmas season is a time for families to meet up as those who live, work or study afar come home. Now Lebanon’s media are already conjuring up an “Italian scenario”.

When, the pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020 in Italy, its hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. Now Lebanon’s rising COVID-19 cases and death rate are signs that Lebanon might be in the same situation.

At least 5,000 new cases are being reported daily with an average of 15 deaths per day, but those figures are probably higher according to doctors, this in a country of just five million inhabitants. In fact, the number of deaths is expected to rise as more and more patients die at home, due to lack of space in hospitals.

“I spent my day getting calls from people looking for a hospital bed,” said on Saturday Sleiman Haroun, president of the private hospital owners' union who was asked about hospital overcrowding.

The bed occupancy rate stood at 80 per cent two months ago. “It rose to more than 100 per cent today,” Haroun noted. “Now, hospital administrators are saying that patients who need hospitalisation are either being turned from one hospital to another, or piled up — the word is not an exaggeration – in intensive care units, waiting for a bed.”

“Despite the deaths, the turnover of beds remains slow,” Haroun explained, “since COVID-19 patients tend to be hospitalised for a long while. They can easily remain a week, but can go up to a month.”

Health Minister Hamad Hassan is trying to stem the disturbing growth with what is available, pending the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine in February. To this end, he expects the country to remain locked down until the end of the month while private hospitals will be more involved in the health effort.

In fact, the minister appealed to the conscience and sense of civic duty of private hospitals to “put aside their rights and bank accounts” and more generously join the fight against the spread of the virus.

“Let the state fulfil its obligations and we will fulfil ours,” say private hospitals, which are demanding more than US$ 1 billion from the state for unpaid fees.

Half of Lebanon's 120 private hospitals have already equipped themselves to deal with the pandemic, their union president said, who noted that the equipment of an intensive care bed requires an investment of between US$ 35,000 and US$ 50,000. Not all hospitals have this money to spend, to say nothing of investments in buildings and personnel.

This controversy reflects the state of the country’s economic crisis with banks illegally exercising strict controls on bank accounts, including those of hospitals.

The president of the Order of Physicians, Dr Sharaf Abousharaf, who had warned of the disaster before the holidays, spoke out against the blatant waste in the Finance Ministry, which has left the government without resources.

He was flabbergasted that the authorities are demanding a greater effort – without compensation – on the part of private hospitals, while some government facilities, such as the one in Zahlé (120 beds) in central Lebanon, have only a 10 per cent occupancy rate.

“Where have all the billions of pounds in aid gone?” he asked. “Why aren’t we setting up some of the field hospitals sent by different countries after the catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August?”

It should also be noted that some of the private hospitals hit by this explosion, such as the Sisters of the Rosary Hospital, which received assistance from the Nunciature, and the Greek Orthodox St George's Hospital, are not yet fully operational.

Faced with a wave of coronavirus-related deaths, Health Minister Hamad Hassan can now count only on the country’s lockdown.

Such a decision includes a curfew, alternating traffic, limits on travellers allowed into Lebanon, but it could be upgraded to a general lockout, with the airport completely shut down for one or two weeks.

Yet, people should not raise their hope too high about countering the pandemic. The battle has not yet been won, especially since some business and professional groups, such restaurateurs and hoteliers, are grumbling about the effects of the lockdown, whilst others are in a denial mode for lack of information about the virus, and the country’s poorer and undisciplined regions seem more concerned about food insecurity than infections.