Lebanon to start lockdown amid post-holiday infections surge

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon will begin a 25-day nationwide lockdown tomorrow to battle a surge in coronavirus infections during the holiday season that challenged the country’s already battered healthcare sector.

Lebanon’s health and interior ministers announced the new lockdown on Monday following hours of government meetings to discuss measures to combat the rise in infections.

A daily curfew will take effect tomorrow and last until February 1, from 6pm until 5am, the ministers said.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said legal action, not just fines, would be taken against violators. “The pandemic challenge has become a danger to the lives of Lebanese as hospitals are no longer able to provide beds,” he told reporters.

The holiday season has seen the number of new virus cases more than double in Lebanon. With a flailing economy, the government relaxed preventive measures hoping to boost economic activity and cash in on visitors’ spending.

People walk on Hamra street in Beirut, Lebanon. PHOTO: AP

The softened restrictions sparked a debate over whether it is the government’s wavering policies or social laxness in implementing social distancing and other preventive measures that is behind the surge.

Nearly 80,000 Lebanese expats returned home since the beginning of December to celebrate the holidays.

The festive season, with its increased number of social gatherings, put pressure on Lebanon’s healthcare sector. First responders say they have been transporting nearly 100 patients a day to hospitals that are now reporting near-full occupancy in beds and ICUs.

Nurses say they are overwhelmed and private hospitals have been roped into the national response despite complaints that the cash-strapped government owes them large sums of outstanding debt.

Lebanon, a country of nearly six million, including one million refugees, registered around 3,000 new virus cases per day for the past week. Over 192,000 total infections have been recorded in the country since last February, including 2,000 healthcare workers, with almost 1,500 deaths.