BEIRUT: Lebanon’s coronavirus infections surged Sunday, registering 36 new cases as public health experts warn that the country is on the precipice of a second wave of infections if lockdown measures are not followed.
After a brief lull, Sunday’s numbers were the highest recorded in over a month, raising the total registered cased in the country to 845.
Of the new infections, 23 were found among the local population and 13 among recently repatriated nationals.
Numbers have been steadily increasing since Thursday, following a brief plateau of registered cases in the country, with the majority reported among returning nationals.
The highest number of infections was found in Akkar where 13 people had been infected after coming into contact with a recently repatriated national who had returned from Nigeria Thursday, the Health Ministry reported. The man had initially tested negative upon arrival and failed to adhere to self-quarantine procedures, infecting those around him. The flight which had arrived Thursday evening recorded 25 infections among its passengers.
“This is exactly the risk of bringing in people from abroad without making them respect the isolation procedures” said Nasser Yassin, professor of policy and planning at the American University of Beirut.
Yassin called the government’s loose monitoring of returning nationals a “blunder,” stressing that: “Those who came from abroad should have been monitored closely on a daily basis.”
Nationals returning from abroad who test negative are still expected to self-quarantine for 14 days with regular follow ups from the Health Ministry. This also requires cooperation from Lebanon’s municipalities to ensure that returnees are following the procedures. However, there is no guarantee on whether municipalities are adequately monitoring those in isolation.
This is especially concerning as Middle East Airlines announced it would begin the third phase of Lebanese repatriation beginning May 14, which will see the return of 11,300 nationals according to MEA Chairman Mohammed Hout. The second phase repatriated around 5,500 nationals, Hout confirmed.
A Health Ministry source told The Daily Star that the ministry moving forward would aim to ensure that municipalities were closely monitoring recently repatriated nationals.
“We should be worried about a second wave,” Yassin warns.
“If [Lebanon] is not able to do strict community isolation where cases have been found, you have to go back into lockdown. You need to always keep monitoring,” he says.
Despite the recent surge, the government’s policies have been inconsistent at best.
On the one hand, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry revised its night curfew Sunday, extending it from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a bid to contain the outbreak, acknowledging that “the situation is getting worse.”
The ministry in a scathing statement highlighted a “lack of commitment of many citizens to preventive and public safety measures, and due to the selfishness, disregard and indifference to their health and the health of their communities.”
Interior Ministry Mohammed Fahmi threatened that lockdown would be tightened once again if citizens continued to breach coronavirus measures.
However, on the other hand there has been almost no mention of revising the timeline of the government’s five-stage plan to ease lockdown measures across the country, which saw businesses, borders and school shutter on March 15.
Interior Ministry later in the day issued a circular outlining the third phase of Lebanon’s lockdown relaxation set to begin May 11, which will allow restaurants and cafes to now operate at 50 percent capacity on all days of the week – an increase from last week’s 30 percent permitted occupancy.
Buses will also now be permitted to operate from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. on all days of the week.
The consistently increasing infections has also done little to deter Lebanese from crowding streets and recently reopened shops and restaurants across the country over the weekend.
A video circulating social media showed dozens of customers lined up outside of the popular clothing store Zara in Beirut’s Souks.
People were seen packed into restaurants and cafes along Beirut’s Gemmayzeh without masks or gloves, despite occupancy restrictions.
For the first time in nearly two months, worshippers were also permitted to return to churches Sunday, operating at 30 percent capacity and checked temperatures at the entrances.
AUB’s Yassin says that to contain the outbreak, lockdown policies need to be fluid and constantly readjusting to fluctuating infections until a vaccine is made available.
“Lebanon has to consider the concept of relaxing lockdown and then going back into lockdown ... so you’re managing the health care system until there’s a vaccine,” he explained.
Health Minister Hamad Hasan Saturday evening said he would seek Cabinet’s approval for a total country lockdown for 48 hours if infections continued to increase.