Lebanon News

Panic spreads as Lebanon confirms first coronavirus case

People protect themselves with face masks as they leave the Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Panicked citizens flocked to pharmacies across Beirut demanding masks, sanitizers and antiseptics almost an hour after Health Minister Hamad Hasan confirmed Friday the first case of coronavirus in Lebanon.

Outside of I-Care pharmacy near Hotel Dieu, a long queue formed shortly after Hasan announced in a televised news conference that a 45-year-old woman who had arrived from Iran the previous day had tested positive for the deadly virus.

"Everyone is in a state of panic. They are running inside asking for masks and hand-sanitizers," said Christine Boyadjian, a pharmacist working in Gemmayzeh whose stocks of masks and sanitizers ran out less than two hours after the news broke. "Honestly, we didn't expect this," she added, noting that they were finding it difficult to secure new supplies. Lebanon's deep financial crisis has led to a dollar liquidity crunch, and many critical imports, including medical supplies, are no longer widely available in the country. Boyadjian says that they haven't been able to get their hands on new supplies of masks for over a month.

According to Hasan, the ministry is in contact with passengers on board the flight and a team of experts inspected the plane coming from Iran.

The minister asked all those who have come from Iran over the last two weeks to remain quarantined for 14 days, which is the length of time it can take for symptoms to appear.

While there is only one confirmed case of coronavirus, a number of people interviewed aired a general lack of confidence in the ability of  Prime Minister Hassan Diab's newly formed government to respond quickly and effectively to the potential health crisis, which follows months of popular anti-government protests driven by complaints of systemic corruption and mismanagement.

"[The government] imagines that people will take responsibility themselves to quarantine? That's not governance. That's absolving responsibility and putting it on the individual so it's a very irresponsible response to such an important situation," said Tracy, an editor in her 40s, responding to the government's directive for the other passengers. Flights to and from Iran have not been cancelled.

"We already don't have control over the political and economic situation so a part of me expected this," said Caterina, a health student in her early 20s.

While many people on the streets could be seen covering their faces using their hands and scarves as make-shift masks, other people seemed more calm about the virus. Ali Ammar, a taxi driver, told The Daily Star that he was not concerned. "It's one case, and if I get it then it's just my luck," he said.

Muhammed Abdeen, a bar manager in Mar Mikhael, rejected the news entirely. "It's not true, there is no coronavirus in Lebanon. They [politicians] are just trying to distract people from the other problems," he said.

WhatsApp groups flooded with cautionary advice and information on how to detect symptoms. After rumors circulated online about public schools being shut down for three days, the Education Ministry was forced to issue a notice dispelling the fake news.

"#سنموت_بعد_قليل," translating to "We are going to die soon," was the top trending hashtag on Twitter Friday afternoon. A popular parody Twitter account with the handle @lebfinance tweeted: "Central Bank: you can withdraw one medical mask every 15 days." One user, @OmarTamo19, responded with "2 hours ago this was a joke, now it's a reality. I had to go to 6 pharmacies to find surgical masks," illustrating both the country's economic collapse and virus hysteria in one tweet.





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