When I was writing my last article about how strong leadership could turn the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity to achieve progressive change in healthcare, I couldn’t have imagined that my home city of Beirut was on the brink of another disaster.
It is hard to put into words the shock all Lebanese feel in the wake of the apocalyptic explosion on August 4th. Approximately 200 lives lost, thousands injured. Devastation that has left tens of thousands homeless and ripped out the heart of the historic city.
Lebanon is drowning in feelings of anger, disbelief, despair even, that we could be here again. Seeing our city reduced to rubble brings back painful reminders of war, still fresh in living memory. And then for this to happen at this time, in the midst of a global pandemic, with the country facing its largest economic crisis to date.
It is not easy in dark times to look for the light, but we must. The hope has to be that the shockwaves from this cataclysmic disaster finally shake the country into much-needed change. The people must stand together to achieve this.
Once again, I am reminded of the gap that exists between the essential work of the healthcare sector and the way that the healthcare system is funded and organised. As you can imagine, Beirut’s hospitals were inundated with the injured and traumatised in the wake of the port explosion.
Not only that, we have seen the videos of how the St George Hospital, barely a mile from the epicentre of the blast, was itself severely damaged. Staff at the hospital showed great heroism to evacuate the 300 patients in the hospital at the time, including new-born babies. Some medics and nurses walked through the shaken city to other hospitals to find a safe haven for their patients.
And yet Lebanon’s healthcare system, on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, the first line of defence when disaster, has also been hit devastatingly hard by the country’s financial crisis. As the article in The Lancet from February 2020 describes, in the wake of currency collapse, Lebanese hospitals have been left woefully short of funds to pay staff and buy critical equipment.
Private hospitals deliver the majority of Lebanon’s public healthcare with reimbursement from the government, but the sector is facing a funding blackhole of $1.3bn. The situation is so grim there has been talk of hospitals having to close their doors.
The need for economic and political reform in Lebanon has been painfully laid bare. There will of course be competing priorities for where the focus of reform should be — tackling the hunger caused by rampant food inflation, for example, and now rebuilding a devastated city. But with the spectre of a killer virus still hanging over us, it is my sincere hope that we can as a society recognise the priceless value of our healthcare system and its heroic workers and end the chronic underfunding.