3 Weeks After Blast, Beirut a ‘War Zone’
The human toll of the disaster is only just beginning
A little over three weeks after the chemical blast in the port of Beirut that killed at least 181 people, Beirutis have yet to wake up from the nightmare that has become their existence.
“I’ve been to a number of war zones here in the region myself,” Juliette Touma, regional chief of communications for UNICEF Middle East and North Africa told The Media Line. “I’ve covered Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and I’ve never seen destruction at that level. It was literally like walking into a war zone.”
The August 4 explosion has only compounded pre-existing conditions on the ground already exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanon’s economy was in shambles even before the pandemic, with the country accruing massive amounts of debt and facing high inflation rates. The country was amid a currency crisis, with the Lebanese pound losing 86% of its value. Approximately 30% of the people were living below the poverty line. The World Bank predicts that this will increase to 45% this year.
The high human toll of the blast can be felt in the growing problem of hunger, with the cost of food tripling during the pandemic.
“If the deteriorating economic situation didn’t starve them, along came corona to do just that,” Maya Terro, co-founder and executive director of FoodBlessed, a Beirut-based nonprofit organization that provides food assistance, told The Media Line. “We’ve seen the need for food aid increase significantly after the blast.”
“Foodblessed has provided food aid to almost 8,000 families since October 2019 but we still have 10,000 names registered on our waiting list,” she added. “After the explosion, we had to create a whole new database that includes only families that have been affected by the blast.”
The blast has taken its toll on health, both personal and public.
Even before COVID-19, hospitals in Lebanon were in crisis. Human Rights Watch reported in December that the government owed $1.3 trillion in back payment to private hospitals, which serve the majority of the population. As a result, many hospitals lacked the medical supplies they needed to treat patients, like certain antibiotics and surgical supplies.
The list of medical provisions needed has only grown since then.
“In the sense that this blast came on top of COVID and the number of cases continues to increase on a daily basis here in Lebanon, the need for personal protective equipment like masks and gloves are huge,” UNICEF’s Touma said.
I’ve been to a number of war zones here in the region myself. I’ve covered Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and I’ve never seen destruction at that level. It was literally like walking into a war zone
Sara Chang, a public health professional based in Beirut, says that the COVID-19 situation in Beirut remains precarious.
“The number of tests conducted daily has thankfully remained steady in spite of the health care system’s diminished capacity from the blast,” she told The Media Line. “Beirut continues to experience a growth in new infections. … Test positivity among locals over the last two weeks, in fact, was 8.18%, which is higher than the 5% positivity the World Health Organization recommends for reopening.”
This comes amid a loss of faith in the government, leading to more people not following national health guidelines.
“The blast has only served to increase this resistance and skepticism, which is illustrated most recently by restaurants, bars, and hotels, already heavily affected by the explosion, refusing to close under the government’s two-week lockdown that started on Friday.
This lack of confidence in officials, Chang says, is the worst public health complication from the explosion.
“The greatest public health implication from the blast is perhaps more insidious than increased transmission, increased hospitalizations, or increased deaths. It may in fact be the loss of any remaining trust in a government already struggling with economic collapse, political instability, and responding to a pandemic, she said, “Without that trust, which has been critical in other countries curbing the spread of COVID-19, people in Lebanon will continue to face difficult circumstances and decisions, largely on their own and with limited support from local and international organizations on the ground.”
Children have also suffered greatly as a result of the blast.
“The biggest problem facing children is the psychological impact the blast has left on what UNICEF estimates are nearly 600,000 youth who live in greater Beirut and have been indirectly impacted by the blast, and by indirectly we mean mostly living in shock and fear as a result of the blast,” Touma said.
In addition to mental health care the organization is providing, UNICEF is also providing water tankers to neighborhoods that lost access to running water due to the explosion. In the neighborhoods hardest hit by the blasts, access to clean drinking water is a major problem.
Touma says that four children have died as a result of the blast and at least 1,000 children were injured, which is one-sixth of the more than 6,000 people injured. While Touma says most kids came in with minor injuries and were released, around 30 required longer hospitalizations.
While housing was initially a problem for people homeless from the blast, Toumi says that the need has lessened as a result of “solidarity” among Beirutis, with people taking in families lacking shelter. However, she says that among certain segments of the population, like Syrian refugees and other displaced families, access to housing is still very much an issue.
Although the long-term prospects for Beirutis are unclear, most people expect the conditions to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.
“No one knows what’s waiting for us. The unknown is always scary and in the case of our country, you can never be sure of anything except that it will be worse before it will be better,” Foodblessed’s Terro said.