The deadly blast that rocked Beirut on Tuesday evening has hit a country already on the brink of collapse, leaving many questioning how Lebanon will recover.
The explosion in the port ripped through the city, leaving some 300,000 people homeless, more than 4,000 wounded and at least 100 dead. But the incident is just the latest in a series of calamities to hit the nation – from a 15-year civil war to an economic meltdown.
Speaking to the Telegraph from his house 30km outside Beirut, Rami Shamma, field operations director at the NGO World Vision Lebanon, said that the blast will compound these existing humanitarian emergencies - which in turn will limit the country’s capacity to recover from the explosion.
“We have three crises at present: the Syrian refugee crisis; the economic crisis that started in October; and then we have the Covid-19 outbreak that started in February,” Mr Shamma said. “Many friends and acquaintances are just thinking, why a fourth crisis on top of this?”
Asked how the country could recover in this context, Mr Shamma said that “we are asking ourselves the same question, honestly speaking.”
Jad Sakr, Save the Children’s country director in Lebanon, added that Tuesday’s incident in Beirut could “not have occurred at a worst time and has hit communities who were already suffering from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and the economic deterioration”.
“Beirut’s main port, now completely damaged, is vital for much of the food, grains and fuel that Lebanon imports, and families will immediately feel the shortage in basic needs as a result of this tragedy,” he said.
Just last week, analysis from Save the Children suggested that close to a million people can no longer afford basic necessities in the Beirut area, pushing more than 560,000 children to the brink of hunger.
This figure could escalate in the coming weeks – Lebanon imports some 90 per cent of the wheat used to bake staple flatbreads, but some 80 per cent of this haul enters and is held at the now decimated port in Beirut.
The explosion, thought to be an accident, comes amid a difficult year for Lebanon. Protests against government corruption, austerity measures and lack of basic infrastructure erupted last October, paralysing the country and leading to the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri.
And for almost a month Lebanon has been facing severe power cuts. The nation hasn’t had 24-hour electricity since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, but now the generators that usually plug the gaps in the service are overwhelmed, frequently plunging the country into darkness.
The security situation in the country is also fragile with regular terror attacks and exchanges of fire between it and neighbouring Israel. The Syrian conflict has also sporadically spilled over into Lebanon, with several attacks affecting Beirut and nearby regions.
But by far the most obvious repercussion of the Syrian war in Lebanon, which is home to roughly 4.5 million people, has been the influx of an estimated 1.5 million refugees.
Lebanon and international organisations have on several occasions sounded the alarm over the economic and social burden posed by this influx into a state that is ill-equipped to assist them.
Mr Shamma said the blast would affect refugees, who have struggled to work amid the country’s lockdown, indirectly.
“The areas that have been impacted by the explosion are not the areas that refugees reside in. But definitely this will increase the economic burden on the government and businesses - it will increase the unemployment rate,” he said.
He also expressed concern about the ramifications for Lebanon’s already fragile health system. While the country has reported only around 5,000 infections and 65 deaths in the coronavirus pandemic to date, there are widespread concerns that chronically underfunded public hospitals are close to collapse.
The blast hit several hospitals near the port and triggered a wave of new admissions.
“The medical system [was] overwhelmed over the past night, but it was already overwhelmed with the high number of Covid patients,” said Mr Shamma. “Now with what happened yesterday and some hospitals directly impacted by the explosion - it will also increase the burden on the health system providing the health services.”
But despite the grim outlook, Mr Shamma insisted that the country can emerge from the latest crisis.
“I work in a humanitarian organisation so perhaps I am always doomed to be optimistic,” he said. “The challenges that are coming up are extremely concerning, but I want to be hopeful.”
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