Beirut, Lebanon – With its economy in tatters and political wrangling hampering the prospects for recovery, Lebanon has little reason to celebrate in 2021.
Towards the end of the year, Lebanese expatriates and tourists flock to the country, giving hungry restaurants, pubs and nightclubs a much needed injection of cash.
But as hotels, restaurants and nightclubs gear up for lively New Year’s celebrations, doctors and healthcare workers fear a public health hangover with rising COVID-19 cases due to the variant. Omicron.
Omicron, which was first reported in South Africa last month, has become the dominant variant in the US, UK, France and other parts of Europe.
Cases across the Lebanese country are increasing. The Lebanese health ministry reported 4,537 cases on Thursday, up from 3,153 the day before.
Less than 65 percent of Lebanese signed up for vaccinations while just over a third of the population took both doses.
“We still haven’t seen how he [Omicron] works in a country that is not well vaccinated like ours, ”Health Minister Firass Abiad told Al Jazeera.
“We have to assume that the rate of hospitalizations could increase rapidly and we have to prepare based on that assumption.”
Abiad added that the bed capacity has been increased by 30 percent, mainly in public hospitals.
Although some studies have reported that the new variant is smoother than its predecessors, the United Nations has warned that it is far too early to be reassured by the existing data.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday he feared transmission of the Omicron and Delta variants of the new coronavirus would put “immense pressure” on hospitals.
The healthcare sector in Lebanon is struggling due to the economic crisis – soaring prices for fuel, medicine and the Lebanese pound losing more than 90 percent of its value in just over two years.
Public hospitals have mostly relied on international aid to cover the costs in order to be able to function.
Weak state, battered economy
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi on Wednesday issued a decree this would restrict the capacity of restaurants and nightlife venues and implement other security measures.
But there are fears that Lebanese security agencies will struggle to implement the new measures – as they did a year ago – which have resulted in an increase in the number of deaths and a strict lockdown.
Crowded hospitals have been forced to treat patients in their cars and on sidewalks, and have even turned stretchers into makeshift beds.
Due to the high demand, there was a shortage of oxygen machines.
The Lebanese Minister of Health said he and the country’s COVID-19 committee have met with union leaders, including the Union of Restaurant, Cafe, Nightclub and Bakery Owners.
But while an agreement was reached on the measures, Abiad said there had been no implementation.
“They say the numbers are going down, that’s the excuse we hear,” Abiad said.
Battle with the government
In a TV interview earlier this week, Tony Ramy, who heads the union, said restaurants and nightclubs had done their part, but the government had not.
“There is a lack of mask-wearing culture in Lebanon and we are seeing overcrowding,” Ramy said, denying that the tourism industry has contributed to the increase in cases.
“The cases started to increase two weeks ago, that is, before we started working. “
Abiad, however, asked residents to be more careful.
“There hasn’t been a day when someone in the healthcare industry hasn’t warned people to take precautions – it’s almost alarmist at times,” he said, adding that “we we are still seeing pervasive behavior “that cannot be managed. by the health sector.
“People say we should shut down the country [lockdown] but it’s not just about the decision, it’s about implementing it, ”he added.
Dr Jade Khalife, a doctor specializing in health systems and epidemiology, told Al Jazeera that Lebanon must change its COVID-19 strategy which he called “illogical”.
“Countries like Lebanon that rely solely on mitigation, rely too much on vaccines and yo-yo blockages,” Khaliph said.
“We need a containment approach where we track all cases, isolate them and quarantine their immediate contacts instead of just focusing on the total number of cases.”
But Lebanon faces a dilemma: not only does the government lack the financial and human resources to strictly enforce protective measures, but it is also reeling from what the World Bank describes as one of the worst economic crises since. at least a century.
Khaliph said compromising public health for the economy will not be successful in the long run.
“Countries that have tried to save the economy but ignore public health end up losing both. Countries that put health first saved both.