At virus tipping point, Lebanon imposes all-day curfew

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Police bike officers patrol on the empty waterfront promenade as the country starts a new lockdown, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Lebanese authorities began enforcing an 11-day nationwide shutdown and round the clock curfew Thursday, hoping to limit the spread of coronavirus infections spinning out of control after the holiday period. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT – It was a choice between containing a spiraling virus outbreak and resuscitating a dying economy in a country that has been in steady financial and economic meltdown over the past year. Authorities in Lebanon chose the latter.

Now, virus patients struggling to breathe wait outside hospitals — hoping for a bed or even a chair to open up. Ordinary people share contact lists of oxygen suppliers on social media as the the critical gas becomes scarce, and the sound of ambulances ferrying the ill echoes through Beirut. Around 500 of Lebanon's 14,000 doctors have left the crisis-ridden country in recent months, according to the Order of Physicians, putting a further strain on existing hospital staff.

On Thursday, Lebanese authorities swung the other way: They began enforcing an 11-day nationwide shutdown and round-the-clock curfew, hoping to blunt the spread of coronavirus infections spinning out of control after the holiday period.

The curfew is the strictest measure Lebanon has taken since the start of the pandemic.

Previous shutdowns had laxer rules and were poorly enforced. Now, residents cannot leave their homes, except for a defined set of reasons, including going to the bakery, pharmacy, doctor’s office, hospital or airport — and for the first time they must request a permit before doing these things. Even supermarkets can only open for delivery.

While Lebanon still somehow managed to keep cases to an average of fewer than 100 per day until August, it now leads the Arab world in number of cases per million people. Today, the number of daily COVID-19 deaths is more than 13 times what it was in July. On Jan. 9, over 5,400 infections were reported, a record for the small country.

On Thursday, Lebanon registered a new daily record of 41 deaths, bringing the overall number of recorded cases to nearly 237,200 and 1,781 deaths, according to the Health Ministry.

While its neighbors begin vaccinating their populations — including Israel whose campaign promises to be among the world's speediest — Lebanon has yet to secure a first batch of shots. Once a leader in the health sector among Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon has been stymied in its effort to get vaccines by repeated bureaucratic delays partly due to the fact that it has a caretaker government.