Tragedy in Beirut: What lies ahead

August 11, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti
Photo by Pasqual Gorriz/UN

Lebanon has already been facing an economic crisis, an influx of refugees, and a new spike in COVID-19 cases. This means that recovery from the August 4 explosion in Beirut will be daunting.

Before Tuesday, August 4, Lebanon was already at an impasse. The country is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in recent history, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 33% of the country’s population lived at or below the poverty line last September — that number is now estimated to be approximately 45%. The country’s unemployment rate is now just above 30%. It is also host to the greatest concentration of refugees per capita in the world (over 20% of its population).

However, this month’s massive explosion in Beirut — Lebanon’s capital and main port city — has led to a more immediate emergency: More than 300,000 people have been left homeless, and over 5,000 injured. These injuries come on top of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, placing additional stress on the country’s medical and healthcare resources.

Destruction to homes in Beirut

Destruction caused by the Beirut Explosion 4th August 2020. Lebanon Photo: Acted (our Alliance2015 partner)

A daunting recovery

“The scale of the recovery challenge is daunting given the level of injury, devastation to homes and essential infrastructure, and the underlying poverty and economic crisis,” says Concern’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Bríd Kennedy.

While the full scope of impact of this event is yet to be determined, the Beirut explosion is an example of how an emergency can further stress an already complex humanitarian situation. Here are just a few of the humanitarian impacts of this explosion, and how they fit together.

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Medical response and the ongoing effects of COVID-19

As one healthcare official told the press the day after the explosion, “We need everything to hospitalize the victims, and there is an acute shortage of everything.”

The explosion at the Port of Beirut destroyed one of the city’s main hospitals and damaged many other healthcare facilities, forcing many patients to be evacuated and creating an increased demand for beds in other nearby facilities. Some medical supplies were already in short supply due to the coronavirus. Beirut has the highest concentration of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and had, just days before the explosion, implemented a new lockdown to control a second spike in infections.

The Port of Beirut also handled 80% of Lebanon’s food and medical imports, which means that getting supplies into the country now — and, more importantly, to where they are needed most in its capital — will involve contingency plans, such as delivering through the smaller port of Tripoli in the north (approximately 90 minutes away by car).

Explosion damage in Beirut

The explosion in Beirut was felt as far off as the island of Cyprus (approximately 150 miles away). The blast has left as many as 300,000 people unable to return home. Photo: Acted (our Alliance2015 partner)

Shelter and essential needs

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, it’s estimated that as many as 300,000 people cannot live in their homes, which further complicates the order to shelter in place. For those who can stay in their homes, there is also the concern that the explosion will further challenge infrastructure basics like electricity. Two of the most common hashtags for Beirutis on social media on the evening of August 4 were #ourhomesareopen and #بيوتنا_مفتوحة, both of which signaled spare beds and sofas on offer to those who were displaced. But long-term solutions will be necessary. For Beirut’s large refugee and migrant population (including many women who are live-in domestic workers without a support system in Lebanon), the housing situation is even more precarious.

Food security is also a concern, in a year where the Food and Agriculture Organization has already predicted increased levels of hunger due to issues including the pandemic. The explosion also damaged the country’s largest  grain silo, and the FAO fears a flour shortage for the country as a result. The economic crisis has more than doubled the price of basic food staples between the end of 2019 and the middle of 2020, which also could mean that Lebanon’s poorest and most economically vulnerable people will suffer the most.

Lebanon’s economic crisis has more than doubled the cost of basic food staples between the end of 2019 and the middle of 2020.

Psychosocial support

“If it is not physical damage, it is psychological, emotional and mental damage,” said Zein, whom we met (along with her mother and brother) during the first weekend of cleanup efforts. “I see everything in white and grey, and I feel that I am not moving. We already have so little hope, our past is destroyed, all our heritage.”

For a country that suffered a 15-year war (ending in 1990) followed by ongoing conflict, Zein’s feelings are common in Lebanon, with multiple generations uncertain of what the future will hold. “Old traumas are coming back,” added Zein’s mother.

While many affected by the blast may not have sustained physical injury, many (including an estimated 80,000 children) are at risk for long-term effects including post-traumatic stress disorder. Left untreated, PTSD from these experiences could lead to chronic conditions including anxiety, depression, or addiction, as well as negative coping mechanisms. In turn, these conditions can seriously limit a person’s potential or quality of life.

Avoiding a humanitarian crisis

Concern has worked in Lebanon since 2013, where we first established programs in response to the Syria crisis and where we have since been responding to the increasing humanitarian needs in the region for both refugees and host communities. Our team is in place to assess local needs and ensure that Lebanon’s most vulnerable people have access to clean water and the hygiene and sanitation measures that are especially vital to protect against  COVID-19.

We will also focus on providing shelter to Beirut’s poorest communities whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the blast. As Concern’s Humanitarian Advisor Dom Hunt points out, upgrading substandard shelters will be vital before the wet and cold weather arrives in Lebanon in the coming months. “As long as we can get funds, we have the staff and the resources to make an immediate real difference to alleviate suffering,” added Hunt.

A group of aid workers responding to the explosion in Beirut with cleanup efforts

Members of Concern Lebanon volunteering with clean-up efforts in Beirut. Photo: Concern Worldwide