BEIRUT – The massive explosion which devastated swaths of Lebanon’s capital in the past week has severely impacted its health system, officials warned Wednesday, as the country wrestles with rising cases of covid-19.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that three of Beirut’s hospitals were largely out of service and that more were still flooded with the wounded. The detonation of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate inside the city’s port on Aug. 4 killed 171 people, injured 6,000, and left hundreds of thousands without homes.
Following an assessment of 55 health-care centers in Beirut, the WHO’s regional emergency director Richard Brennan said that “just over 50 percent are nonfunctional,” with a deficit of up to 600 beds.
The blast heavily damaged at least four of the city’s major hospitals, sparking mass evacuations even as wounded residents streamed in looking for help. In a visit to Beirut’s Geitawi hospital Tuesday, Washington Post reporters walked through the ruins of a once-busy facility, the glass swept away, but corridors still badly damaged.
On the night of the blast, physician Joseph Khalil said, glass had rippled through the air as staff leaped to save patients. Doctors and nurses in the newly opened coronavirus ward grabbed people from their beds and carried them out for transfers to other hospitals.
“The response was a miracle,” he said. “It was chaos, but they saved our patients.” He said that the facility had been able to restart dialysis treatment within 24 hours, and that some patients were now receiving chemotherapy again, too.
Cases of coronavirus are spiking in Lebanon. The health ministry said Wednesday that it had recorded 292 new cases, bringing the total to 7,413 in a country of 6.8 million.
Even before the blast, public health officials had warned that the health system was ill-equipped to cope with the rising caseload. Lebanon has been hit hard by an economic crisis which has seen food prices triple in a year as the currency crashes.
Lebanese prime minister, Hassan Diab, said Monday that he was resigning, citing corruption “larger than the state,” accelerating the country’s political crisis. On Tuesday, the World Food Programme said that it was sending 50,000 tonnes of wheat flour to Lebanon after the blast at Beirut’s port destroyed its only silo with all the private stocks held there.
After touring Beirut’s hospitals to assess their needs, Benlahsen Mourad, a military physician from Marseille, France, said Wednesday that the city had a shortage of medical supplies, including anesthetics and antibiotics, in the aftermath of the blast.
“The big problem is covid[-19] protection,” he said, including masks, drugs and protective gear. “It’s not enough.”
His team met with Beirut governor Marwan Abboud on Wednesday to discuss assistance. Mourad said that an emergency room was being set up in the hard-hit Qarantina neighborhood for those who couldn’t pay. An adviser to the governor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide the information to news media, said that it’s not clear when damaged hospitals will be functional again.
“They need time,” he said. “Even if they are inoperational, they are working just to have the emergency area accessible.”
But the needs are broad. “It’s not just beds, it’s about ventilators, it’s about equipment, it’s about medicine,” he said.
International humanitarian organizations are asking to set up field hospitals, he said. While countries, including France, Germany, Qatar and the UAE, have helped with medical aid, there are issues with its distribution.
“It’s chaotic,” he said.
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The Washington Post’s Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.