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Months after massive explosion, a worsening pandemic complicates Beirut’s recovery

It's been six months since a massive fertilizer explosion at the Port of Beirut tore through the city, leaving hundreds dead and catastrophic destruction. Lebanon was already mired in a deep economic crisis before the blast, and is now experiencing another calamity with COVID-19. Special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been six months since a massive fertilizer explosion at the Port of Beirut tore through the city, leaving hundreds dead and catastrophic destruction.

    Lebanon was already mired in deep economic crisis, but now, after the blast, as special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen tells us, add another crisis, COVID-19.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's 9:35 p.m., and the Lebanese Red Cross' night team is racing to respond to yet another critical COVID-19 call. Lebanon has no official ambulance service, so these young volunteers are the front line of pandemic defense.

    This 85-year-old woman is fighting for every breath. There's nothing more they can do in the ambulance. She needs a hospital bed. But after a massive uptick in cases here in the past few weeks, those are hard to find.

  • Michelle El Kawak:

    The hospitals in Lebanon are suffering from a shortage in resources, and we have experienced multiple times on multiple missions, when we transport a patient to the hospital, that there's no room either in the emergency room or in ICU, or even in the whole hospital.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The intensive care unit at the hospital they have come to is full. She only makes it inside because her doctor reserved a space for her in advance, knowing she might deteriorate.

    Six months ago, an enormous explosion swept through Beirut, tearing apart homes and lives. It killed more than 200 people, injured thousands more, and left large swathes of the city in tatters. My own neighborhood of Mar Mikhael was left in pieces. Many of its residents have come back and rebuilt. Some have nowhere else to go.

    But the area is a shell of its former self. This was once one of the busiest streets in Beirut, lined with crowded cafes, bars, restaurants and shops. While some of them have been rebuilt, others are still piles of rubble. And thanks to the pandemic, it's still a ghost town.

    The explosion was yet another blow in a year that had already seen the currency lose 80 percent of its value and food prices triple, while many lost their life savings. The government, having done little to tackle the country's economic freefall, swore it would rapidly punish those responsible for the blast. Instead, it has spent months gridlocked in political infighting.

    And now, just as the city was getting back on its feet, it's been floored by a devastating wave of COVID-19 and a nationwide lockdown imposed upon a population that has nothing left to give.

    One of the country's largest hospitals, LAU-Rizk, had only just recovered from the damage it sustained in the blast. Now they're building again, racing against time to add more capacity before they're hit by another spike. They have already repurposed two extra floors above the packed ICU as COVID wards. Those were full almost as soon as they were complete. The E.R. is full too.

  • Dr. Georges Ghanem:

    We treated a lot of patients on the chairs, under the tents, outside the E.R.. We put some extension oxygen cords to oxygenate the patient standing on the stretcher outside the E.R. It was a very chaotic and very severe two weeks.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The rise in cases came after the government chose to prioritize the economy over health over the holiday season, lifting restrictions to allow tens of thousands to gather at bars, restaurants and parties.

    The resulting virus spread carried a heavy toll. More people have now died of coronavirus in the last four weeks here than in all of 2020. The test positivity rate has been 20 percent or higher for weeks. The World Health Organization says movement restrictions should remain until it falls below 5 percent for at least two weeks.

    If they're lifted anytime soon, doctors fear another spike.

    Are you worried the government, for political reasons, will lift the lockdown?

  • Georges Ghanem:

    It's a struggle between economy and politics and science. In my opinion, this is the way how we should be living for the next at least year.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    But even as doctors beg for an extension, there's already talk of easing the restrictions. Lebanese say they can't take much more of this lockdown, one of the harshest in the world.

    In place for nearly a month, it's imposed a 24/7 curfew, with all shops, including food stores, closed. Many here work daily cash-in-hand jobs, so if they're not working, they're not earning.

    Six months ago, we met the Mitri family after their home was decimated by the explosion. Ever since, they have been rebuilding. It was nearly livable again, but then the curfew stopped construction workers finishing the job.

    Their father Joseph (ph) refused to leave the house even when it was at its worst, but the rest of the family are split across the city and beyond, staying with friends and relatives. Desperate to bring them home after months apart, he's completing what he can himself.

    His son Maher has moved back in to help, sleeping on the floor amidst the plaster dust.

    The paint is still wet on the floor. It's that freshly done.

    The grocery store where Camil, the youngest, works is closed. It's still doing delivery and letting trusted customers pick up items, but he's not needed behind the counter. Only his sister and mother work in exempted jobs.

    So, you're not able to work?

  • Camil Mitri:

    No.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Your father isn't able to work.

  • Camil Mitri:

    No.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Your brother is trying.

  • Camil MitriI:

    A little bit, yes, is trying.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    So, the other three of you are surviving on your mother and sister's salary, basically?

  • Camil Mitri:

    Yes, that's it.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Yes.

  • Camil Mitri:

    Because of them we're living, like, a little bit.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Maher still needs surgery to remove glass from the explosion that's embedded in his hand and arm, but he's been without wages for so long, he can't risk having his hands out of action if the lockdown lifts and he's able to work again.

  • Maher Mitri:

    Like, we're like 20 days at home, like no money, like nothing, you know? So, it's hard.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    How long can you continue like that, do you think?

  • Maher Mitri:

    I cannot.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Maher Mitri:

    Like, we need to live. We need to get our jobs back. We need income in our hands. Like, it's really hard, you know? It's really hard here.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The Mitris are lucky by Lebanese standards. They have used up most of their savings getting through the lockdown, but they still have a little money coming in, and a charity paid for most of their rebuilding work.

    Others here haven't been so fortunate. The mood on the streets now is hopeless. A recent call for protests in the capital, which just a year ago saw hundreds of thousands taking to these streets calling for better governance, fell flat.

    Gone is the idealism that change will come. Life here has simply become a fight to survive.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Leila Molana-Allen in Beirut.

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