What Beirut blast could mean for battered Lebanon

Bierut blast

As rescue workers continue to look for survivors amid the rubble of a massive explosion that killed a reported 130 people in Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, the humanitarian implications of the blast in Lebanon’s capital will likely not be clear for some time. At least 4,000 people are said to have been wounded, and the death toll from the blast could still rise. Hospitals have been struggling to deal with the influx of injured people as buildings collapsed and windows shattered throughout central Beirut. While the exact cause of the explosion is unclear, government officials said it was related to a large amount of ammonium nitrate confiscated years ago and stored at the port. Ammonium nitrate can be used as both a fertiliser and in bombs, but must be mixed with another substance to ignite.

First responders are still looking for—and finding—trapped survivors and victims, as healthcare workers tend to the wounded. One major Beirut hospital was severely damaged in the explosion and some patients had to be evacuated, while the Lebanese Red Cross put out an urgent call for people to give blood. Health Minister Hamad Hasan said hospitals in the city are facing “an acute shortage of everything.”

Lists of those admitted to local hospitals are circulating on messaging apps and social media accounts, in an effort to help people locate missing loved ones.

In addition to medical care, immediate needs for those impacted will likely include food and shelter, as Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said that between 250,000 and 300,000 people have been left “without homes.” Technical teams have not yet been able to assess the damage, and it was not immediately clear if Abboud was referring to the number of homes destroyed or damaged.

Further economic pain
The explosion came as Lebanon was already at a crisis point. The economy has been in freefall for months, unemployment is rising, and the country’s foreign minister Nassif Hitti resigned one day before the blast, warning that the country risks becoming a “failed state.”

The financial meltdown, which has seen the local currency collapse, has been worsened by COVID-19, as lockdowns slowed economic activity and remittances from abroad dropped off.

While those hit hardest by the crash have been society’s most vulnerable—including an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees—more and more Lebanese are feeling the pain too. Food prices are rising at a time when people have less money in their pockets, and aid groups have said eviction threats are increasing.

The explosion will likely make things worse. The decimated Beirut port may be unable to take in the imports it relies on for food and other commerce (although Lebanon has other major ports), and people will soon face the expensive prospect of rebuilding their devastated homes and businesses. Abboud, the Beirut governor, said he estimated the damage to be at $3 billion.

Lebanon was already battling COVID-19 before the blast brought a deluge of newly injured patients into its hospitals, and last week it instituted a new lockdown to try to control a spike in new infections.

The country has had 5,271 confirmed cases and 65 deaths, but officials said there had been eight deaths in the 24 hours before they announced the renewed restrictions on July 27. Hasan, the health minister, was quoted as saying at the time that Lebanon has to “work more seriously to avoid a medical humanitarian catastrophe.”

The country’s hospitals have been warning that they are overwhelmed by the outbreak as they battle funding problems, power cuts, and a serious lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). These problems are only going to be made worse by the influx of new patients, not to mention the possibility of further spread if people lack the ability to stay in their homes or access clean water.

From The New Humanitarian, Aug. 5

Photo via Beirut.com

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    In its first session since a devastating explosion rocked Beirut last week, Lebanon’s Parliament approved a state of emergency that extends sweeping powers to the army in the city, a situation that rights groups have said could pose a threat to freedoms. A two-week emergency was first declared by the cabinet in an emergency session with President Michel Aoun the day of the explosion, but the Parliament’s approval makes the measure official and has raised concerns about enabling a crackdown on protesters. (NYT)

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