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Covid-19: Lebanon tightens restrictions as cases soar

Health officials have warned that Lebanon is quickly running out of beds as coronavirus spread intensifies
People wait to get tested for coronavirus at the Covid-19 department of the Nabih Berri university hospital, in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh, on 9 January 2021 (AFP)

Lebanon has imposed an 11-day total lockdown following a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections.

The new measures introduced on Monday include new travel restrictions as officials and health professionals warned that hospitals were quickly running out of beds, leaving many scrambling for treatment.

"It is forbidden to go out on streets and roads from 5:00 am on Thursday 14 January until 5:00 am on Monday 25 January," said a statement, released after a meeting of the Higher Defence Council, the country's top security body.

All residents are to remain at home at all times with few exceptions, including health professionals, journalists, those working in the food sector and other essential workers, the statement added.

Land and maritime borders will be closed to all travellers except those carrying a valid transit visa.

Travellers arriving from Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul will need to quarantine in a hotel for seven days at their own expense.

They must take a PCR test upon landing in Lebanon, and then again six days later.

Private hospitals will be obliged to expand intensive care units dedicated to coronavirus patients to help a strained public sector, the statement said.

Supermarkets will remain open, but only for delivery. Rumours they would be forced to shut completely sparked panic buying across the country on Monday, with crowds clearing supermarket stocks.

'Drastic measures'

Lebanon, a country of more than six million, has recorded 222,391 Covid-19 cases, including 1,629 deaths, since February. 

Over the past seven days, it has seen a 70 percent increase in infections, placing it among the countries currently experiencing one of the world's steepest virus upticks, according to AFP data. 

Firas Abiad, the head of Lebanon's main coronavirus hospital, said the country recorded more than 30,000 new cases between 3 and 10 January, hitting a peak of 5,440 new infections on Friday. 

Overwhelmed by the influx of new patients, hospitals have had to turn people away, sending many families into a desperate hunt for hospital beds.

One hospital at the weekend said it was treating patients in cars because it had reached capacity. 

"The tragedy we are seeing in hospitals requires drastic measures," President Michel Aoun said on Monday. 

Outgoing premier Hassan Diab said the outbreak had "spiralled out of control" and warned the country's healthcare system could "collapse" under the pressure. 

Cases skyrocketed after authorities loosened restrictions around the holiday season, allowing bars, restaurants and night clubs to remain open until 3:00 am, despite warnings from health professionals.

Money trouble

To stem the rise in cases, the government on January 7 imposed a new lockdown set to run until the start of next month. The measures included a now-defunct night-time curfew. 

Health minister Hamad Hasan has since called on private hospitals to assist a strained and under-funded public sector in treating Covid-19 patients.

Private hospitals, which say they are owed millions of dollars in dues from a bankrupt state, provide more than  80 percent of Lebanon's healthcare services. 

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But many have refused to treat Covid-19 patients or expand the number of hospital beds available to coronavirus cases until the government settles its debt. 

Lebanon is set to receive its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines in February from Pfizer-BioNTech.

The vaccine will arrive in instalments and will cover 15 percent of the population, according to the health minister.  

Compounding the crisis, Lebanon is grappling with its worst economic downturn since the 1975-1990 civil war.

More than half of the country's population lives in poverty, while the Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value on the black market.

Outgoing finance minister Ghazi Wazni on Monday said the government is dedicating 75 billion Lebanese pounds (around $49m at the official rate) to struggling families hit hard by the lockdown.