Hospitals are facing overwhelmed and without resources caring for the victims of the Beirut explosion. The Lebanese Government admits the lack of means to face the catastrophe.
It is, without a doubt, the worst war that we have experienced in our emergency services ”. This is how George Dabah, chief physician of the emergency services of the Hôtel Dieu hospital in Beirut, describes the hours that followed the explosion that shook the city on Tuesday and destroyed the port area of the Lebanese capital. The fatalities are already at least 145 and more than 5,000 injured.
With 20 years of experience in the emergency rooms of this hospital, Dabah has witnessed the ravages caused by dozens of car bombings and the 2006 war between the Shiite militia Hezbollah party and Israel, whose bombings left more than 1,200 dead, most of them civilians, and thousands of wounded. “Not even during the civil war [from 1975 to 1990] such chaos was faced with so few means,” he says.
This is one of the five university hospitals in Beirut with the highest number of beds and specialists. All are private, in a country where public health accounts for only 15%. At the gates of the Hôtel Dieu centre, 500 wounded arrived along with 14 bodies after the explosion in a warehouse that stored 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. Harassed by the worst economic crisis in the country in half a century, Dabah laments the lack of reserves of medicines and foreign exchange to import basic drugs for the operating room, resuscitation or even anaesthesia.
Among those injured on Tuesday, Rita was unconscious, in critical condition with a skull fracture. Just at the time of the explosion – a few minutes after 6:00 p.m. local time – he had an appointment at the hairdresser to get a manicure. That was the last time her husband, Ziad el Khoury, after 20 years of marriage, spoke to her. The shock wave propelled Rita against the salon wall and the chairs that flew off. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she was admitted as an anonymous patient. El Khoury, 50, He has seen his firefighting material import business sink with the country’s economy and pound, but he couldn’t believe that everything could get worse. After visiting all the hospitals in Beirut on Tuesday night, he could not find his wife.
“Going home, looking at my two teenage sons in the face and telling them that I don’t know what happened to their mother was the hardest thing,” he recounted this Thursday from the doors of the ICU at the Hôtel Dieu. Disfigured by the trauma, no nurse recognized his wife even though El Khoury showed them her photo. Finally, she gave them the details of how she was dressed and that “she had opted for a very striking pink polish” for her manicure, she continues. It was that enamel that allowed Rita to be identified. In 48 hours, El Khoury will know if his wife survives or not.
In the interminable waiting, she assures that she cannot forgive the Lebanese ruling class, which she blames for the explosion for their negligence. The chemical material has been in the port for six years. In the waiting rooms, family members and nurses protect themselves with masks while COVID-19 cases reach their worst figures since the beginning of the pandemic with 200 new daily cases, 70 deaths and 5,672 infected. In the next 10 or 15 days we will see if the tragedy is going to be double with the spread of the virus”, warns Dabah, after reporting that it has been impossible to maintain protection measures. 30% of the patients went directly to resuscitation and the hospital no longer had evidence of the virus.
During the hours of rescue, hundreds of people also came into direct contact to save the lives of others without any protection. The emergencies at the Hôtel Dieu were overwhelmed, and the situation was worsened by the partial destruction of the Geitawi Hospital and the complete destruction of Saint Georges Hospital. Both the closest to the place of the explosion. “It was the worst day of my life,” recalls the Saint Georges Subhi Fares emergency doctor between IV bags and 350 beds covered in dust and blood. “I treated as many as I could in the street, tubing, resuscitating while my colleagues evacuated all the patients from the nine floors to medical centres in other cities,” he explains.
It was on the ninth floor, spattered with puddles of blood between SpongeBob stickers affixed to the paediatric ward, that four of his fellow nurses died from the brutal blast wave. With them, 14 patients lost their lives. A few streets away, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, has inspected this Thursday the neighbourhoods most affected by the accident. He has been escorted by dozens of Lebanese soldiers who have acted as a barrier in front of more than a hundred demonstrators who shouted “revolution”, “down with the corrupt government!”, “Do not help our leaders!” Others have tried to take a selfie with the French leader. “When the heart of Lebanon is beaten, so is France’s,” said the president during his visit, in which he promised an independent investigation and help Lebanon. It has done so in a neighbourhood of Ashrafi, the Christian heart of Beirut, mostly French-speaking and with close ties with the Lebanese diaspora living in France. The few Lebanese politicians and ministers who showed up in the disaster area were greeted with stones, boos and bottle blow.
With an economy already on its knees before this latest tragedy and decimated state coffers and no foreign currency, Lebanon cannot cope with a reconstruction of the devastated area or face the health emergency – Russia opened a field hospital this Thursday, which will be followed by others financed by Qatar, Morocco, Jordan and Iran, according to the Ministry of Health. This has been admitted by the Government.
The governor of Beirut, Maruan Abboud, has raised the bill for the damages to between 8 and 12 billion euros, which have affected half the city and temporarily expelled one-sixth of Beirut’s 2.2 million inhabitants from their homes. Lebanon accumulates one of the largest external debts in the world, some 76,000 million euros, equivalent to 170% of GDP. The crisis has exacerbated social inequality in a country (with 6 million inhabitants, 1 of them, Forbes they are politicians. “I wish it was a missile that caused the explosion,” says Musa Fares, a 46-year-old engineer whose best friend has lost an eye and an ear. “We would be a little less disgusted by our leaders than if it is another negligence,” he attacks. Many agree with him.
The explosion has fuelled the anti-government protests that had run out of steam during the pandemic. Anger has once again united different classes and confessions in a river of protesters and volunteers with the same demand: to expel politicians who have been in power for 30 years. “We do not expect anything from the government other than to leave and let us rebuild the country we deserve,” says Marua, a 24-year-old university student. Leave some crystals in a container. As soon as he leaves, a woman in her 60s searches the same place. A small but growing army of beggars runs through the city.