Facing Lebanon’s new COVID-19 wave

Lebanese Health Minister Firass Abiad shut down rumors that suggest authorities are headed towards a new lockdown or towards stricter health measures as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

“The responsibility lies on an individual level,” he told Beirut Today. “As long as the situation in hospitals is under control, we won’t resort to a lockdown, especially since the economic situation is very difficult.”

Already struggling under the weight of an economic crisis and the mass emigration of medical professionals, Lebanon’s health sector may be pushed into yet another tight spot with the country’s new wave of COVID-19—particularly when citizens and residents are too occupied with putting food on the table to worry about preventative measures.

According to Abiad, the Health Ministry is currently focused on ensuring the situation in Lebanon’s hospitals remains under control.

He likened their method to that of bees in a hive, adding that the ministry is regularly checking for the arrival of new COVID-19 strains. They are also looking to provide free rapid tests for symptomatic individuals who cannot afford testing.

“I didn’t do a test to find out if I had COVID-19 because it’s expensive and I consider COVID-19 to be like the flu,” said S. Traboulsi, a woman in her forties who works online.

After becoming symptomatic, she self-isolated and quarantined in her home. She refrained from mixing with her family for a week.

“I caught COVID-19 a year and a half ago so I now have experience in dealing with it,” she said. “Throughout my quarantine this time, I took vitamin C and medication to treat the fever and pain. I also upped my intake of healthy fluids, and the symptoms were gone a few days later.”

Public health statistics show that around 50 percent of Lebanese citizens received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 44 percent received their second dose, and around 26 percent received their third dose by the end of June 2022.

The Health Minister urged Lebanese citizens and residents, including refugees, to take the vaccine—which is free, readily available at centers across all regions, and doesn’t need an appointment.

Refugees and the vaccine

Open data available on Impact, the first e-governance platform in Lebanon, shows the number of individuals registered to take the COVID-19 vaccine up until June 2022: 2.86 million Lebanese, 583,000 Syrian refugees, 122,000 Palestinian refugees, and 400,000 individuals of other nationalities.

UNHCR Lebanon spokeswoman Dalal Harb told Beirut Today that refugees have been included in the national campaign to combat COVID-19 since its launch, as well as in the UN body’s programs and activities. She stressed that Lebanon’s vaccination campaign is aimed at all individuals and families living on Lebanese soil, including refugees.

But many refugees fear being arrested, detained, or deported from Lebanon if they register to receive the COVID-19 vaccine via the government site, especially those whose stay in the country is not legal.

The Human Rights Watch estimates that Lebanon hosts around 900,00 registered Syrian refugees, and the government estimates that another 500,000 are living in the country illegally. 

Lebanon requires Syrian refugees to obtain legal residency to remain in the country, but the difficult conditions it imposes mean that 80 percent of Syrians do not have their legal residency papers, according to the 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.

Why COVID-19 is on the rise again

Medical experts say several factors may increase the likelihood of catching COVID-19 once again, including the development of new variants that may not be affected by the vaccine and the decrease in individual immunity over time.

They also agree that the omicron variant of COVID-19 has not mutated greatly and that its impact has not been as severe as other variants on most people, who are likely to experience moderate symptoms unless they suffer from respiratory diseases.

While being vaccinated does not stop someone from catching the coronavirus, it does help lessen the effect of the virus on individuals who catch it.

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Lebanon specifically can be attributed to the easing of preventative measures by both individuals and the public and the impact that the tourist season has on increasing gatherings in restaurants, clubs, and other public spaces.

The global rise in the number of cases has also resulted from the emergence of partial mutations within the omicron variant, BA.4 and BA.5.

“Like a flu”

“I had a headache first, so I took some Panadol but the pain persisted,” said N. Hamouch, a Lebanese woman in her forties who works in a public institution. “The pain got worse the second day and I started having pain in my eyes so I started having my doubts.

The woman was afraid she would pass the virus on to her mother and to her colleagues, so she got tested.

“Honestly, if I didn’t live with my mother and wasn’t afraid for her, I wouldn’t have done the COVID-19 test because I think it’s like getting the flu now,” she said. “I took 3 doses of the vaccine and am no longer afraid of it, but the responsibility falls on me to not pass it on to others, especially the elderly.”

Despite its symptoms being less severe, omicron is more transmissible and better at evading antibodies. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said that the variant still should not be classified as “mild.”

Hamouch didn’t consult a doctor and didn’t receive a call from the Ministry of Health. She adopted the generally recommended procedures, such as consuming more fruits and drinking more water.

“After only four days, I was feeling much better,” she said. “The symptoms disappeared so I waited several more days to test for COVID-19 again and the result was negative.”

As a global increase in COVID-19 cases is registered, it should be said that preventing the virus is a thousand times better than treating it. Taking precautions and getting vaccinated can protect your family and society.