Beirut, Lebanon With its economy in tatters and political squabbles holding back prospects for recovery, Lebanon had little reason to celebrate in 2021.
By the end of the year, Lebanese expatriates and tourists are flocking into the country, giving starving restaurants, bars and nightclubs a much-needed cash injection.
But while hotels, restaurants and nightclubs are preparing for buzzing New Year’s Eve celebrations, doctors and healthcare workers fear a public health hangover with sharp COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant.
Omicron, first reported in South Africa last month, has become the dominant variant in the United States, United Kingdom, France and other parts of Europe.
Cases across the country of Lebanon are increasing. The Lebanese Ministry of Health on Thursday reported 4,537 cases, up from 3,153 the previous day.
Less than 65 percent of Lebanese registered for vaccinations while just over a third of the population took both doses.
“We have not yet seen how this happens [Omicron] operates in a country that is not as well vaccinated as ours, ”Health Minister Firass Abiad told Al Jazeera.
“We have to accept that the rate of hospitalizations can increase rapidly and we have to prepare according to that assumption.”
Abiad added that bed capacity has been increased by 30 percent, mainly in public hospitals.
Although some studies have reported that the new variant is softer than its predecessors, the United Nations has warned that it is far too early to be reassured by the existing data.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said on Wednesday he feared that the transmission of Omicron and Delta variants of the new coronavirus “great pressure”At hospitals.
Lebanon’s health sector is struggling due to the economic crisis – rising fuel, medicine prices and the Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value in just over two years.
Public hospitals relied mainly on international assistance to cover costs in order to function.
Weak state, battered economy
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi issued a decree which will limit capacity at restaurants and nightlife and implement other safety measures.
But there are fears that Lebanese security agencies will struggle to implement the new measures – as they did a year ago – which have led to an increase in deaths and a severe collapse.
Packed hospitals were forced to treat patients in their cars and on footpaths, and even turned portable into temporary beds.
Due to high demand, there was a shortage of oxygen machines.
The Lebanese health minister said he and the country’s COVID-19 committee had met with the heads of syndicates, including the syndicate of owners of restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and bakeries.
But while an agreement was reached on measures, Abiad said there was no implementation.
“They say numbers are going down, that’s the excuse we hear,” Abiad said.
Wrestling with the government
Tony Ramy, who heads the syndicate, said in a television interview earlier this week that restaurants and nightclubs had done their part, but the government did not.
“There is a lack of masked culture in Lebanon and we are seeing overpopulation,” Ramy said, denying that the tourism industry has contributed to the boom in cases.
“Cases started to increase two weeks ago, that is before we started doing our job.”
Abiad, however, asked residents to be more careful.
“There has never been a day where someone from the health sector has not warned people to take precautions – it’s sometimes almost scary,” he said, adding that “we still see pervasive behavior” that can not be dealt with. by the health sector.
“People say we have to close the country [lockdown] but it is not just about the decision, it is about its implementation, ”he added.
Dr Jade Khalife, a physician specializing in health systems and epidemiology, told Al Jazeera that Lebanon should change its COVID-19 strategy, which he called “illogical”.
“Countries like Lebanon that rely purely on mitigation have relied too much on vaccines and yo-yo restrictions,” Khalife said.
“We need a restraint approach where we locate all cases, isolate them and quarantine their immediate contacts instead of just focusing on the overall number of cases.”
But Lebanon faces a dilemma – not only does the government have a shortage of financial and human resources to enforce strict protective measures, it also boasts of what the World Bank describes as one of the worst economic crises in at least ‘ n eeu.
Khalife said the harm to public health for the economy would not be successful in the long run.
“Countries that tried to save the economy but ignored public health eventually lost both. “Countries that put health first have both saved.”